In light of the current “Progressive” assault on the rule of law and all on standards of decency and the Church’s surprising susceptibility to the contemporary “social justice” phenomenon, Jacob Brunton suggested we should ask: “What popular teachings insist that it is permissible—or even necessary—for Christians to jump to unwarranted conclusions, and to only utilize reason in defense of those conclusions, rather than in establishing them?”
Jacob Brunton’s answer:
“Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology. When the Presuppositionalist says that no one is capable of getting around some foundational presupposition, he is simply giving you an argument for postmodern skepticism/relativism.”
There are many concepts of what Presuppositionalism is.
If we are talking about an apologetic method that asks questions about suppositions, that’s all fine. It doesn’t imply skepticism or relativism.
At For the New Christian Intellectual, we are concerned about the epistemological idea that all thinking must be circular and question-begging.
Granted, Presuppositionalists would typically say we are presenting a strawman of their view. But where, then, can we find the clearly stated, intellectually defensible version of their view?
Yes, granted, Presuppositionalists claim to have reason on their side and claim not to be advocates of blind faith and dogmatism. Nevertheless, if taken on its own terms, the stated Epistemology of Presuppositionalism (of whichever variety) is a subjectivist, coherentist view. As the late R.C. Sproul pointed out in this 12 minute video clip, Presuppositionalism fails basic logical requirements by begging the question.
The book “Classical Apologetics” by Gerstner, Lindsley, and Sproul gives a good overview of the errors of Presuppositionalism.
If, for the sake of argument, we could grant the point that presuppositionalism fails logically, then perhaps there is something to Jacob Brunton’s suggestion that we look into the connection between the apparent opposites of the presuppositional Christian dogmatists and the postmodern Cultural Marxists. Do they have more in common than we might think?
In what follows, I will show the connection I have in mind. I will show how I got from A to Z.
Tilting at windmills?
As I’ve worked to provoke conversation on these two topics, I’ve often been told to keep my eyes on the forest (the battle for biblical orthodoxy and against Cultural Marxism). To change the metaphor, I’ve been told that anti-presuppositionalism is no hill to die on. Here is how these conversations have played out.
Several days ago, I posted the following, and received a surprising amount of attention for it. I wrote:
“Which is more important? The battle against Cultural Marxism, or the battle against Presuppositionalism? Well, one is an effect—and the other is a cause. Cultural Marxism is an immediate threat to my life. But Presuppositionalism is a greater and wider threat, long-term.
“I agree with the well-known Presuppositionalist Jeff Durbin that there is a way to argue for God that is immoral. We just disagree about which method is the immoral one.
“I see Presuppositionalism in professors and pastors as ‘running interference’ for a growing trend of fideism in congregants. It dulls our swords, diminishing our ability to fight the external battles or to keep young souls in the church. I know many young people who have left the church, and I can’t say they were given a compelling picture of what faith is or why it makes sense.
“Too many churches are atheist factories. That is why I’m zealous against Presuppositionalism. The stakes of the battle are high. Our camp is not in order.”
To be sure, I should have offered more support for this controversial statement.
Jacob Brunton’s statement of this issue is better:
“The reason I believe Presuppositionalism is more dangerous than Cultural Marxism (in the long run) is that I believe Presuppositionalism is a Christian version of postmodernism, and postmodernism is the root of Cultural Marxism, as well as many other evils in society.”
These posts and others created more than a small stir.
“I have been noting a groundswell of anti-Reformed discussion recently, and in particular, anti-presuppositional posts. As has been the case for decades now (longer than most of the proponents of these posts have been breathing air), straw men abound. You basically have a young generation of recent philosophy grads beating the war drums. Nothing new about that, of course. Young philosophers tend to be that way. But if you read this young man’s words you really get the feeling that a true imbalance exists. Seriously, you truly have to have a pretty rabid strain going to think “presuppositionalism is a greater and wider threat, long-term” than cultural Marxism! And blaming presuppositionalism as if it is relevant to churches being “atheist factories” shows a truly dangerous perspective. The primary producer of atheism in the hollowed out church of evangelicalism is the shallow, man-centered entertainment-focused “seeker sensitive” movement and the resulting churches where sound theology and truth itself are sacrificed on the altar of pleasing men.
“The fact is, an apologetic methodology that begins with man will always end with man as well—it will never ascend to divine truth. Covenant apologetics, or presuppositionalism, or whatever else you wish to call it, is nothing more than a recognition that engaging in apologetics by granting the rebellious presuppositions of the rebel sinner will never lead you to consistent Christian truth. You can attempt to obscure that reality with a long list of fancy philosophical conundrums, but one thing you will not be able to do is exegete your way out of the proverbial paper bag when it comes to the foundational realities of the sovereignty of God and the deadness of man in sin in Scripture. And as long as those divine truths remain enshrined in holy Writ, all man-centered philosophies, even those loved and adored by professing Christians, will remain empty of the power of the Spirit. Definite future DL topic, to be certain.”
After posting the above earnest, frank comments about young philosophers and war drums, Dr. White also interacted with me online in a congenial way, and he was even willing to review some material from Jacob Brunton’s debate on Romans 1. This excerpt from that full debate is especially relevant: The Postmodernism of Presuppositionalism.
Later, I found that another acquaintance, a writer of substance, had this to say about our discussion. It’s not altogether favorable toward me, but it offers good advice both to myself and Dr. White. I recommend the article for its honesty, and I tend to agree with it.
Then came the September 25th Dividing Line. Again, praise God, Dr. James White took time to engage our views on his webcast.
I encourage you to listen to Dr. White’s episode. Each person should judge for himself: How much of Dr. White’s critique is substantive, and how much does he engage the claims we make and the reasons behind those claims?
Indeed, as a Classicalist, I can be consistent in this exhortation: Use your own discernment.
Where’s the beef?
Well, enough storytelling. We’ve arrived at the point where it would be fair to ask, “Where’s the beef?”
How do I get from A to Z in my analysis? How is it that I consider Presuppositionalism related to—and a more important threat than—Cultural Marxism?
In the remainder of this piece I offer my full response to Dr. James R. White’s critique:
Let me say, I wish I had made my case more clear before Dr. White laid eyes on it. Discussions take time and patience. Let me say what I do not mean.
- I do not think well-educated Presuppositionalists currently incline toward Cultural Marxism.
- I do not think that their view logically entails Cultural Marxism.
- I do not think a Presuppositionalist will be tempted by some inner logic of his own view to drift toward Cultural Marxism.
Here is where I am with Dr. White:
- I agree that the “atheist factories” are mainly churches that do not affirm Presuppositionalism. (I apologize for not saying so earlier. This was a great oversight.)
- As a reformed thinker, I agree that no one can be saved apart from the work on the Holy Spirit and the hearing of God’s Word.
- I agree that the unsaved person is in rebellion against God and does not desire to comprehend the truth. There is a moral inability that no mere presentation of logic can overcome.
Also, it may well be true that the percentage of Presuppositionalists who are influenced by Cultural Marxism is negligible, for the time being. That is an arguable point. (Whatever the trend is today, it could change, as I have seen it changing in churches in Louisville, KY where I attended seminary.)
How else do I agree with Dr. White?
Jacob Brunton and I compiled the following:
We agree with all, or nearly all, of White’s actual exegesis in the Dividing Line episode. There do not seem to be any disagreements regarding exegesis—only potential differences regarding the theological implications drawn from the exegesis which we agree upon.
We agree that general revelation does get through to the unbeliever, and that God has manifested it to the unbeliever. We have nothing against doing an internal critique of the unbeliever’s thought-system.
We are willing to tell people they are wrong and they are ignoring “the clarity of the revelation has been given to them.” We agree with White here 100%. We have nothing against saying to the unbeliever that they are living in God’s world. We take biblical anthropology seriously. We agree with White about the meaning of Romans 8:6.
We agree with White that, “We have to be serious in recognizing what the Bible says about the person to whom we are trying to bring the gospel and whose objections we’re seeking to respond to.”
On what do we disagree?
In the Dividing Line episode, Dr. White challenged Jacob Brunton’s concept of general revelation based on Romans 1. Having reviewed the episode, Jacob maintains his position. He writes:
“Paul does not limit the scope of general revelation to ‘God exists and deserves thanks.’ He also doesn’t explicitly open it to all of philosophy. At minimum, he includes at least some ‘attributes’ of God, as well as at least some of God’s moral law. This legitimizes at least some of natural theology. While it could be argued that it doesn’t explicitly legitimize all of natural theology, there is no reason given in the text to draw any sharp lines around what is, and is not, possible in natural theology.”
While Dr. White seemed to object to the idea of finding more than the narrowest warrant for natural theology in Romans 1 (“God exists and deserves thanks”), it happens that natural theology is strongly implied within the very confession to which Dr. White ascribes. A friend explained to me:
“The Achilles heel of Presuppositional confessionalists is the language of the confessions themselves. Does that language presuppose a particular philosophical perspective? In the case of the 1689 (which White professes), it presupposes classical philosophy more strongly and explicitly than even Westminster ... You can’t rightly defend any of these confessions without invoking classical philosophical concepts.”
In these types of discussions sometimes the greatest challenge is to agree about the nature of the disagreement. Can we even agree about what question we are discussing? The Classicalist’s disagreement is with Presuppositional Epistemology, not the Apologetic method of challenging the unbeliever’s wordview per se.
For that reason, neither Jacob nor I believe Dr. White’s Dividing Line episode constituted a refutation of our views in any significant way. He emphasized the orthodox, reformed position that the sinner is dead in sin. We agree.
We agree that the sinner cannot be expected to convert and receive the Holy Spirit simply by virtue of hearing the best possible argument. Conversion comes only after regeneration by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. The sinner has a moral inability to believe; and yet, that fact is no justification for arguing badly. Since it is unlikely that White advocates using bad arguments or omitting arguments altogether, it is unclear where he thinks we differ from him on this topic. I believe we differ mainly in regard to the question: Which kind of arguments are actually reasonable and commendable to use?
I believe Dr. White would have no trouble saying to an unbeliever, “Let’s think through this topic together.” What does White think he is doing that we would not do? Or what does White think we would do that he would not do?
If the reader is so inclined, we have put together a set of 10 questions for discussion. These questions are addressed to Dr. White or those who hold his viewpoint, with the goal of gaining more clarity on all sides:
What is at stake?
Jacob Brunton and I have reason to believe that the relative dominance in the conservative Christian movement by Presuppositionalism (or the relative lack of apologetic altogether due to plain anti-intellectualism or fideism) tend to have predictable long-term effects.
One predictable effect is the ghettoization of conservative Christian doctrine, as conservatives fall out of influence in the intellectual life of the society. They fall out of influence because they appear to be playing by different rules. And they actually are. The question is, which set of rules is right?
I contend that in important ways the Presuppositionalists (and also the anti-intellectuals and self-conscious fideists) are getting the rules wrong and missing out on a victory that could—and should—be theirs.
To Anticipate an Objection:
Presuppositionalism itself is relatively unknown within the wider conservative Christian movement. This fact suggests an objection to our thesis: How could it be of primary importance to critique a view that is already so ghettoized?
The answer is: Presuppositionalism doesn’t need to have a high profile in order to leave a large impact. Presuppositionalism, if taken to be the intellectual approach, will drive out other approaches. The existence of Presuppositionalism (and its relative favor among seminary professors) has a diffusing effect on the growth of an alternative, more robust Christian Epistemology that would, if given a chance, end up having a much greater effect than Presuppositionalism is having.
Sound Epistemology is powerful. Presuppositionalism has clipped the wings of our Epistemology. The perennial failure of the orthodox Christian movement to expand and to reshape American society can be partially explained in reference to the above theses.
Our theory in outline:
1) Presuppositionalism ghettoizes intellectual Christians with a hobbled Epistemology that most of society will never find compelling (and ought not to). Again, for support of the claim that Presuppositionalism is false, see the book “Classical Apologetics” by Gerstner, Lindsley, and Sproul.
2) Presuppositionalism lulls less intellectual pastors into the false idea (or sense) that their ministry ought not place a great focus on offering a rational defense for a conviction about an historical fact. It is as if facts are beside the point: All we offer is a complete worldview, so take it or leave it. How does a such a pastor counsel the person in his church who comes to him with intellectually honest doubts? Will he engage the person’s reasoning mind? Or will he offer only a transparently evasive “presuppositional” pat answer?
This kind of pastor doesn’t actually make it his business to teach his people why Christianity is true. He focuses only on the application of what Christianity teaches, treating the truth of the Bible as an assumption that will not be discussed. Presuppositionalism assures such a pastor that he is doing the right thing. This is true even if the pastor doesn’t understand the arguments for Presuppositionalism in any depth and even if he doesn’t teach Presuppositionalism to his congregation. In fact, he just needs to know that some supposedly reliable authority affirms the view and then he can assure himself, “those details are outside my pay-grade.”
The result is that many pastors do not genuinely interact with Christianity’s skeptics. (The exception being the ardent Presuppositionalist pastors, who do so, but do it clumsily and illogically.) As a result, many congregants are prone to fall into a fideistic mindset wherein the truth is “just true,” and it doesn’t matter how we came to believe it is true. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it,” is as deep as their Epistemology goes.
3) In view of the above, generally speaking, Christian claims are neither compelling, nor threatening, to most intelligent non-Christians. We have set aside the methodology and Epistemology that would be most effective (the Classical one). Most intelligent non-Christians remain unconverted, or even emboldened. We fail to have the effect that we would otherwise have had.
Please note that my concern for the credibility of our testimony does not imply any downplaying of God’s sovereignty. Calvinists are the first to point out that God works through proximal causes, including the good actions of his people. In terms of proximal causes, we should expect that when our testimony is weak, we will find ourselves less and less able to confront all the grave errors non-Christians make, just as today the Church is generally failing to combat Cultural Marxism.
If we uphold a method in which reason is only used to defend the conclusions we have already presupposed, then we miss out on the full opportunity to convict people of truth (on all matters) in a way that cuts to the heart—the way Peter did when he preached in Acts 2, convicting the people about what they themselves knew to be true (verse 22).
When Christians and non-Christians alike share the premise that all worldviews are circular and all require presuppositional frameworks not grounded in observation and reason, then Christians cannot effectively critique non-Christians (because they are doing the same kind of question-begging).
An important tool against Cultural Marxism is rationality, especially a rational, non-question-begging Epistemology. But that is a tool we as Christians cannot fully use if we embrace Presuppositionalism. When two groups dispute about the implications of a shared premise, that very conflict has the effect of reinforcing the shared premise. The conflict today between Presuppositionalists (or other Christians who function the same way) and post-modernists has the effect of reinforcing subjectivism and question-begging in society on the whole. In this respect we fail to be salt and light.
I have called our churches atheist factories. Dr. James White is 100% correct that, “The primary producer of atheism in the hollowed out church of evangelicalism is the shallow, man-centered entertainment-focused ‘seeker sensitive’ movement and the resulting churches where sound theology and truth itself are sacrificed on the altar of pleasing men.”
Yes. I agree.
White seemed to intend his statement as a refutation of my position on the danger of Presuppositionalism. Ask yourself: Why have churches gone the seeker-sensitive direction in the first place?
The seeker-sensitive, attractional model is a response to the perceived failure of the church to be relevant and compelling to non-Christians. Where did that problem originate?
I will suggest one possibility:
Modern-minded non-Christians find church irrelevant and uncompelling when the message is presented as dogma to be presupposed rather than as a real-world matter to be assessed by the individual human mind.
The world will find our message more compelling (or threatening—for the value of intimidating them to silence) when we put them on the spot as Peter did and point out that Reality is here in front of our eyes; it is evident to our minds. We do no disservice to the unbeliever by pointing out all the ways he is denying the evidence.
It is the world’s hatred toward God the Father and Jesus Christ and their love of sin that is condemnable. They are culpable because the evidence and the rational inference for God have been clearly seen (Romans 1:20). Paul’s whole argument hinges on this fact: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Romans 1:21a).
When we get Epistemology right, then our hands will be untied. Then we will be able to battle effectively against Cultural Marxism and against all movements that reject objectivity.
Until then, the effect of Presuppositional Apologetic thinking (and of non-Apologetic thinking) on the church is this: We fail to attract the best minds. We fail to silence our opponents. We diminish the credibility and impact of the gospel message in society.
Society claims that all we have is blind faith.
The average church goer wouldn’t know what to say about that. The average pastor would muddle it. The average seminary professor would point to Van Til, or Plantinga, etc. — as a reason we don’t need a good answer.
When the castle gets invaded and the doorman was asleep, the blame will rest on the doorman.
Dr. White is right about the horrible effects of biblical illiteracy and the watered down gospel. But look for the cause: Whether they know it or not, too many of our leaders are treating Christianity as if it is only a blind-faith fairytale. We should not be surprised that Christians see little practical consequence to failing to apply their individual minds to matters of faith in a manful way.
We do not need a quasi-intellectual defense of anti-intellectualism. For all the reasons that the mind matters, Presuppositionalism must go. And when it does go, it should be replaced by the robust Christian Epistemology only Classicalism can offer.
Ideas have consequences. Cultural Marxism is just a symptom of the broader disease of anti-reason. As Christians, we ought to be the doctors. Presuppositionalism has made the doctor himself sick. Let’s get that doctor healed.
That is how I get from A to Z.
I will offer the following thought to those who can make use of it:
The order of being is not the order of knowing. If you’re a Presuppositionalist, this is the Classical argument you should work to understand and be able to explain in a way that your opposition would consider satisfactory.
Those Presuppositionalists who can do such a thing will do much to establish that they are intellectually credible, that they understand the real-world use for Epistemology, and that they are seeking in good faith to advance knowledge rather than merely to end the discussion.
For the New Christian Intellectual Key Articles on Epistemology:
Q: In light of going against Presuppositional Apologetics, what do you do with Luke 16:26-31 about the Rich Man and Lazarus? Doesn’t this indicate that you could have all the evidence in the world, including a dead man who has been raised, yet still not convince anyone of the truth?
A: This passage and others could be taken as an indication/support that:
1) No amount of proof will suffice for someone who is evading
2) The Holy Spirit and God’s Word must convict the person
These are points on which Classicalists and Presuppositionalists agree. Have you assumed Classicalists don’t agree on this?
The best resource here is Jonathan Edwards’ The Freedom of the Will. He explains his theory that the cognitive mind is free to do what the will desires, but the will desires sin. The problem is not that the mind (in terms of cognition) is directly shackled; the problem is that the person’s desires are shackled. This has effects on our thinking in an indirect way, because we cannot think about something well when we have no desire to.
Q: How do you understand Romans 1 from the Classical perspective?
A: The unbeliever hates God. His desire is not to love God or to honestly deal with any facts that would condemn him in this. He is cognitively capable of knowing many things. He has a natural ability to know that God exists and is a righteous judge. He can know this from an inference from creation. (Calvin agrees here.) While he has a natural ability, he has a moral inability: He doesn’t want it to be true, so he makes himself willingly ignorant (compare 2 Peter 3:5). He evades the truth that his mind is capable of grasping, because he has no desire to know it. It is his desire that is not free. This idea is found in Jonathan Edwards and supported by many others.
For additional reading: https://christianintellectual.com/what-is-knowledge-in-romans-1/
Q: I would like to understand the Classical position better. Would you tell me the reasons used in authenticating the Scriptures as true?
A: Generally, it would include the credibility of those who say it is true, the existence of the Church, the credibility of the content of Scripture, possibly some awareness that it is a well-attested historical book, the inner working of the Holy Spirit convicting us of its truth and of our sin, the strong argument from the resurrection, the obvious inference from the creation to the existence of the creator, etc.
One need not be a scholar to come to a warranted conclusion. People don’t all need to come via the same arguments. For me, it was first one reason, then additional reasons as I grew through childhood and young adulthood. If someone puts his faith in Scripture based on a presuppositional argument, he would still, of course, be saved.
Q: What do you mean by distinguishing between the order of being and the order of knowing?
A: We don’t immediately sense that God exists. It is a fact available (and obvious) to all able-minded adults by inference from observing the creation.
Romans 1:18-20 explains this fact:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For 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 people are without excuse.
By the testimony of the Bible itself, it is true that men who do not have the Bible know that there is a God. This is a fact that can be established, whether or not we use the Bible in our argument. The Bible simply attests to the plain fact, available to all people.
An example may help:
From the fact that there is a burnt log, we may (and should) infer that there was a fire. From the fact that there is a creation, we may (and should) infer that there was a creator.
In order of existence, the fire had to precede the burnt log. Likewise, the creator had to precede the creation. It would be illogical, once we have observed the effect, to reject the obvious fact that there was a cause.
What I am illustrating is the order of being and the order of knowing.
The order of being is:
1) Fire touches a log, then
2) A burn log.
The order of knowing is:
1) I observe a burnt log,
2) I infer that there was a fire.
It is logically correct to infer that there was a fire. Likewise, it is logically correct to infer that there is a God.
Presuppositionalism confuses the order of knowing and the order of being and effectively claims that, since God precedes creation in order of being, he also ought to precede creation in order of knowing. See this video in which we explain the neglected concept of First-Person Discernibility.
Presuppositionalism begs the question and disagrees with Romans 1 and the rest of what is modeled in Scripture. It also establishes an Epistemology of Subjectivism, in which proof is based on a chosen ungrounded assumption rather than being grounded in our tools of knowledge: observation and reason.
It may help to clarify some terms:
- “Facts” are things the way they are, whether we know it or not.
- “Knowing” is the condition of a person who grasps some fact in a recallable form.
- “Knowledge” is recallable awareness of a fact.
- “Truth” (in the relevant sense here) is the status of a claim that conforms to the facts.
Knowledge starts with there being a fact and there being a person, and that person being able to perceive by some means, and that person being able to think by some means, and that person bringing his thinking to bear on his perceptions.
Ontologically, the starting point is the creator, then the creation, then the subject (you), then you perceiving, then you gaining knowledge.
Epistemologically, from the viewpoint of yourself (the person doing the discerning) the order is you perceiving, then you gaining knowledge, then you coming to inferences about the nature of the world, then you coming to inferences about what is implied by the nature of the world, then you coming to a knowledge (or in many cases an evasion of knowledge) of the creator.
The above is what Classicalists mean when they speak of the distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing.
The fact of there being a world and the fact of us being aware of it (plus a set of related facts) imply to us the fact of God’s existence.
If all the above is what Presuppositionalists mean, then we are disagreeing only about terms.
But if this is not what they mean, and they instead mean we ought to assent to a proposition apart from having a good reason (discernible to the person himself) to do so, then what they are advocating is the kind of post-modern theory of knowledge that is currently destroying the world.
Q: The Word of God is not your starting point? There is another standard of truth by which you test the Word of God?
A: That is not how I would put it.
The Word of God is the perfect and correct message to me from my creator about his standards. I had to evaluate the message, the origin of that message, and the originator of that message. (You wouldn’t accept the Book of Mormon.)
Having accepted that it is true (for good reasons, in my judgment, but only first by the miracle of the Holy Spirit freeing my fallen mind from its love of sin), I assent to all of it and I stand under its authority.
“To stand under” is related to “to understand.”
Had I not stood on my own feet (cognitively speaking), I could hardly claim to “understand” that God is my authority in the way an adult understands things.
That said, the reality of the creator now becomes quite fundamental in my structure of knowledge.
But the order of how we acquire knowledge and the order of hierarchy once it is acquired are not the same. The axiom that “things exist” is the epistemological bottom foundation of what I can discern. God’s existence is the ontological, causal basis for what I can discern.
Now I can address your question.
I test the reality of God in the same way I test all claims: by using my cognitive tools. Were my cognitive tools to show me that God is a lie, I would reject God. Since my cognitive tools show me that God truly exists, I bow to him.
This, I submit, is the kind of bowing that most glorifies God.
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M.A. in Worship Leadership, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville KY.
M.A. in Worship Leadership, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville KY.