Carson on Presuppositional vs. Evidentialist Apologetics

Andy Naselli —  March 26, 2013 — 12 Comments

gaggingD. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism  (Fifteenth Anniversary Edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 184–88:

[P]artly under the impact of postmodernism, the various “schools” of Christian apologetics have an opportunity to draw closer together than they have usually been in the past.

At the risk of oversimplification, let us restrict ourselves to presuppositionalism, rational presuppositionalism, and evidentialism. All three labels are loaded, and various proponents mean slightly different things by them. Moreover there is a tendency, especially among more popular writers, to caricature the other positions. Thus:

(1) The presuppositionalist may charge the evidentialist with superficiality. You can line up evidence to support the truth of Christianity until you have exhausted yourself by your efforts, but no amount of evidence is sufficient to compel belief. Did not Jesus himself say that even if someone came back from the dead, they would not believe? Evidentialism simply does not understand the implications of human finitude or the profound noetic effects of the Fall—and both limitations are exacerbated by postmodernism.

(2) The rational presuppositionalist is scarcely better. He acknowledges that there are controlling presuppositions, but thinks he can give adequate reasons to defend Christian presuppositions. Can a human being by reason find out God?

(3) The rational presuppositionalist largely agrees with his presuppositionalist colleague with respect to the evidentialist, but then charges the presuppositionalist with vague irrelevance. If you cannot give reasons for the superiority of Christian presuppositions, will you simply offer a critique of everyone else’s position and then sit around and wait for the Spirit to strike? Does not the record of New Testament preaching show that reasons were advanced in the bold advocacy of the gospel? Besides, doesn’t the pressure of postmodernism drive us to the conclusion that unless we provide reasoned argument why the Christian worldview is the true one, people will think of Christianity as just one more arbitrary option?

(4) The evidentialist reminds her presuppositionalist colleagues that human beings, made in the image of God, are endowed with reason, and however corrupted those powers, God’s truth must be set forth so as to appeal to that reason and to destroy alternative claims. Do not the canonical evangelists and other New Testament believers present the evidences in support of Jesus’ resurrection, and take pains to debunk the denials? Moreover, precisely because postmodernism is so strong in the land, it is important to overturn presuppositionalist thought as a cop-out that inevitably ends in subjectivity and uncertainty. Proclaim the truth and support it with the fullest arsenal of evidences; it is God’s truth, and by God’s grace it shall prevail.

The debate has a long history, and a few lines will not begin to do justice to its complexities. A sympathetic reading of some recent proponents of each position, however, suggests that at least some of the fences that cordon off each position from the others are beginning to come down. Thus van den Toren, who is more aligned with evidentialism than anything else, breaks free from “cordoned off” evidentialism, precisely because he is wrestling with postmodernity. He argues that the postmodernist rediscovery of the historical character of all human reasoning challenges what is an axiom among many Enlightenment thinkers: that only those truths can serve as a foundation for human reasoning which are directly accessible to all sane human beings. But this postmodern stress on the historical character of all human reasoning does not entail absolute relativity unless epistemological foundationalism is true, which says that truth must be found at the beginning of human reasoning. Van den Toren denies this is true, and proposes to account for human knowledge on the analogy of reading a book: more reading can progressively correct the misconceptions. So far he sounds like an updated evidentialist. But he then argues that the contemporary Christian apologist should insist that the Christian faith offers the only hermeneutical basis on which we can build an adequate understanding of reality. The Christian apologist asks for a “leap of faith” to the Christian worldview—in effect, for conversion that overcomes the bias against it. At several points, he becomes aligned (unwittingly) with, say, Clouser, whose updated presuppositionalism, in the Dooyeweerdian frame, was published, astonishingly, by the presses of a Catholic university. This is a confusing age.

In my view, some of van den Toren’s essay is not yet very well thought out. But quite clearly, the impact of postmodernism is prompting revisions. As long as the modernist model of truth based on proper foundations and appropriate evidence and reason prevailed, a narrowly evidentialist approach (whether wise or unwise) was possible. It no longer is. Carl F. H. Henry has been known to tell his students, “There are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t.” Under the impact of postmodernism, the number of the latter is declining.

Probably Alvin Plantinga has been the foremost philosopher to argue that belief in God is “properly basic,” i.e., that it does not need some other foundation to be considered rational. Plantinga shows, among other things, that everyone holds to many beliefs without proof (e.g., most of us believe in the existence of other minds, and in the continued existence of the world even when we are not perceiving it). And if someone argues that it is immoral to believe anything without evidence, we may well ask what adequate evidence supports that view.

On the other hand, while presuppositionalism served as an important antidote to the sheer hubris of modernity, its narrowest forms, as Cooper found out in Ricoeur’s seminar (see chapter 3 above), do not justify the Christian’s worldview over against other competing worldviews. Indeed, the rhetoric of the narrowest forms of presuppositionalism

may unwittingly aid relativism. In response to modernist claims of rational autonomy, some Reformed apologists have so strongly emphasized the relativity of reason to true faith and uniquely Christian presuppositions that the universal availability of any truth whatsoever has in effect been denied. What results is a kind of religious relativism. Truth is admitted to be completely system-relative, but only (Reformed?) Christians are acknowledged to have the right system. What follows is that unbelievers cannot really know anything at all in religion and morality or in nature and history, not even facts of everyday life. But this implies that non-Christians have good reason for adopting relativism or even agnosticism. [John W. Cooper, “Reformed Apologetics and the Challenge of Post-Modern Relativism,” Calvin Theological Journal 28 (1993): 118.]

Cooper goes on to argue that “standard” Reformed theology “does not paint itself into this corner,” because “it affirms general revelation and common grace—God’s providential maintenance of his Creation order and the remnants of the image of God in fallen human beings” (118). What must be articulated is “perspectival realism.” Proper presuppositionalism “recognizes with postmodernism that understanding … is not an exercise of pure reason but unavoidably involves commitment-based and culturally-conditioned perspectives” (119). Nevertheless it insists, over against postmodernism, that there is one particular perspective that is objectively true, one that is tied to the omniscient God who really exists, who has made us for himself, who redeems his people, and who brings history and the universe to their planned and consummated end. To promote this perspective we simultaneously expose the incoherence of alternatives, and adduce reasons and evidences in defense of the Christian worldview, understanding that at the end of the day the transformation required for a person to adopt that worldview requires not only the revelation God has given in the public arena but also the work of the Spirit in the individual.

At some point it becomes rather difficult to distinguish such presuppositionalism from the rational presuppositionalism of, say, Carl F. H. Henry or Ronald Nash. The former prefers to speak of “transcendental religious apriorism”; the latter has recently written on “worldviews in conflict.” Both have been dismissed as “Christian rationalists,” but this tends to be sloganeering. The critical issue, I think, is how reason relates to presuppositions.

I have tried to spell out something of my (still tentative) approach, in somewhat different terms, in chapter 3. The contemporary apologist whose work is most rigorous in this area is John Frame. Frame quietly distances himself from his mentor, Cornelius Van Til, at a number of significant points; more importantly, he writes with rare clarity and precision, and disabuses his opponents of a number of misconceptions. For example, he makes clear that he has no objection to the forceful presentation of evidences in Christian apologetics; what he objects to is the adoption (implicit or otherwise) of the assumption that evidences or reasons are neutral. He does not object to appeals to extrabiblical data in apologetics, but refuses to assign them independent authority to which Scripture must measure up. His work marks the most mature melding of various components of apologetics I have seen so far. This is not of course to say that distinctions in approaches cannot usefully be made. It is to say that the onset of postmodernism is fostering refinements in virtually every approach to apologetics, and the result might well be better integration than has been achieved in the past.

On the other hand, there are also new dangers. Plantinga’s approach is well respected among many philosophers, but it is important to recall that all it secures is “epistemic permission”—i.e., if Plantinga’s arguments are correct, it is reasonable for him to claim belief in God without offering supporting evidence. But it says nothing whatsoever about “epistemic obligation”—that you and everyone else ought to believe in God, indeed such and such a God, too. In fact, it is easy to suspect that one reason why Plantinga’s approach is so well respected is that, whatever its legitimate strengths, it unwittingly plays into the hands of postmodernists who are quite happy for you to find your own “properly basic” beliefs, provided you do not suggest that everyone ought to share them. But from the perspective of Christian witness, this could never be more than what is sometimes called “pre-evangelism.”

Related:

  1. The 2-page preface to the 15th anniversary edition of The Gagging of God (the only change to the book that I’m aware of)
  2. John M. Frame. Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994.
  3. Steven B. Cowan, ed. Five Views on Apologetics. Counterpoints. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
  4. Timothy Keller. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.
  5. Interview with Nathan Busenitz on Reasons We Believe
  6. Gregory Koukl. Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. (Cf. Koukl-Chopra Debate.)
  7. William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.
  8. C. Stephen Evans. Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion. Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.
  9. Douglas Groothuis. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove: IVP, 2011.
  10. Lee Strobel. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
  11. Robert L. Reymond. Faith’s Reasons for Believing: An Apologetic Antidote to Mindless Christianity (and to Thoughtless Atheism). Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008.

12 responses to Carson on Presuppositional vs. Evidentialist Apologetics

  1. As I was reading, I kept thinking, “Talk about John Frame. He brings together the different perspectives in his own thought.” I really benefited from Frame as a teacher. I felt like he was fair to the evidentialists and included many of their arguments into his framework. Thanks for the post!

  2. Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology can’t be taken to indicate his entire epistemology. He certainly thinks there are good arguments for God’s existence. He might still be criticized for thinking the arguments are not strong enough to make atheism irrational, but that can’t be purely on the basis of his Reformed Epistemology, which is a negative argument against the atheist’s claim that belief with evidence is irrational. Reformed Epistemology is silent on the question of how much evidence there is, what classical arguments for God’s existence do show, and whether atheism might be irrational. Plantinga is only making a very small point here, and that point doesn’t mean it’s all he thinks can be said about apologetics. It’s a claim that’s compatible with thinking arguments for God are so compelling that anyone who denies them is irrational, although Plantinga himself doesn’t go that far.

    I think my biggest gripe about most presuppositionalists is something that I think Frame points out. They like transcendental arguments but loathe the same arguments when presented in a slightly different way. All the classical arguments for God can be presented transcendentally. You can state the principle of sufficient reason and then derive an unmoved mover, requiring a necessary being. Or you can state that our practice of finding explanations in science or in daily life assumes the principle of sufficient reason, and then you can show that our practice assumes God’s existence. But the classical approach is to defend the controversial premise by pointing out that people rely on the principle of sufficient reason for all of life, and it would be arbitrary and ad hoc to deny it just in the case where it would rationally lead to belief in God. I haven’t read a lot of Frame, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him make that point, and it was the first time I’d seen someone on either side acknowledge what had seemed utterly obvious to me about this whole debate. I’ve heard that he basically gives in to postmodernism on some crucial things, though.

  3. Plantinga has finally argued that atheism is irrational on page 240 of “Warranted Christian Belief.” He says that naturalists lack warrant to turn their beliefs into knowledge, so without belief in God it’s impossible to possess knowledge.

    My take is that Van Til had the big idea mostly right, but Plantinga has done the heavy lifting of presenting powerful arguments that make VT’s point. This is not on purpose, as Plantinga thinks VT is a fideist and not necessarily on the same philosophical team.

    I think both are far better than R.C. Sproul’s “Classical Apologetics,” which continually says we need arguments that will convince “rational” and “honest” unbelievers. I say great, but do these people exist in the wild? And if not, then we’re wasting our time crafting arguments for them.

    • C.S. Lewis Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel are famous examples of people who were convinced by arguments. I know some myself who are not famous, including more than one philosopher. Arguments are certainly not the most central aspect of conversion, but there are plenty of cases where the intellectual objections to Christianity are what, from the person’s perspective, are more clearly standing in the way for them than anything else, and there’s no question that God uses arguments to remove those objections and therefore as occasions for bringing people to faith.

      And the classical method isn’t actually rooted in trying to find arguments to win over nonbelievers. It’s rooted in philosophical theology, which seeks to use the reason God gave us to determine what we can know by means of natural revelation in addition to what we can know by means of special revelation, since Romans 1 tells us quite plainly that we can know much about God even without scripture. It’s a much more holistic approach than simply trying to find arguments to convince unbelievers. Much of the work of apologetics is in bolstering the believer’s faith and in helping us think more carefully about our theology. That’s certainly how Thomas Aquinas saw what he was doing. His natural theology was foundational to all his philosophy, not just a tool for arguing with Muslims and Jews.

  4. Thanks for posting this! Has it been 15 years already??
    Van Til was never opposed to the use of evidence, just in the way it was framed (no pun intended). “…it is the difference between theistic proofs when rightly and when wrongly constructed that I have been anxious to stress.” (Common Grace & the Gospel). He differentiated between a direct and indirect approach when it came to the use of evidences, and his issue was with the direct approach because of its attempt to introduce evidence without a biblical framework (Van Til & the Use of Evidence, p 78, Thom Notaro). In other words, its all in the nature of the presentation, its not about the use of evidence.

  5. I admit to my shame I haven’t made it through Carson’s book yet… It’s waiting on my to-read shelf. I wish I had read it a long time ago. This was very helpful, Andy.

    I don’t know if Carson does this elsewhere, but it seems to me that an easy tie can and must be made between views of apologetics and views on soteriology. (That’s why I don’t understand Sproul’s position, even after reading the relevant portions of his apologetics book.) Arminians have to believe that there is an open beachhead in the conquest of another soul, one cleared by prevenient grace. The Reformed have the parallel but not identical concept of common grace, which allows for interpersonal communication but doesn’t forget that the beachhead is blocked and/or twisted. (Gotta work on that metaphor).

    I also had an experience recently that I have found instructive but am still processing. A very intelligent guy on Quora read my presuppositionalism, my efforts to deconstruct his own worldview, as a lazy fideism. Maybe it was my fault, though I thought I was using a Fraemean approach. However, what I took away from this encounter was that handling evidences may sometimes be a necessary prelude to pressing someone back to his presuppositions. Most people I encounter, even very smart ones, don’t seem to have thought much about the role basic beliefs (and even more ultimately, loves) play in their thinking. So to be challenged to account for those basic beliefs they don’t believe they have is bewildering.

    • I’m not sure why Reformed theology precludes God from using, by a work of divine grace, our reasoning capacities to undo the effects of the fall in our intellectual resistance to accepting God’s existence. Using Reformed theology to resist classical apologetics is a way of limiting the means by which God’s grace can operate, not a way of exalting grace over reason. A compatibilist about divine grace and the human methods of operation should see through such arguments immediately. Presuppositonalism, with respect to this issue, is thus a form of hyper-Calvinism. Traditional Calvinism would reject such claims as sub-Christian. (And there’s also the fact that the apostles certainly did use arguments in their presentation of the gospel.)

  6. Thanks for posting this, Andy. I wanted to ask if you have run across Paul Moser’s work? In a way, I think he brings together the spirit of “presuppositional” and “evidential” apologetics by insisting that there are attitudes that play a role in whether we have access to the kind of evidence needed to properly believe in God. He’s a little too hard on natural theology for me, but I like a lot of what he has to say. Here’s a link to a summary of sorts of his view that you can find in his latest books (Elusive and Evidence): http://www.luc.edu/faculty/pmoser/Moser%20Gethsemane%20Epistemology%20Proofs%20PC14-2.pdf

    It’s appropriately entitled Gethsemane Epistemology for this Maundy Thursday.

    • Thanks, Adam. I just downloaded that article.

    • That sounds a lot like William Alston’s “Religious Belief and Values” paper, which I’m not finding an internet-accessible copy of.

      The reference is “Religious Beliefs and Values”, Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001), 36-49

      The abstract is:

      “Receptivity to Christian or other religious proclamations is powerfully influenced by one’s value orientations. I distinguish five contrasts in such orientations that illustrate this point. 1. Finding “worldly” values most deeply satisfying vs. a sense that something that transcends those would be most fulfilling. 2. Extreme stress on human autonomy vs. a positive evaluation of deference to God, if such there be. 3. A sense of thorough sinfulness vs. a thoroughly positive self image. 4. A willingness to accept outside help to transform oneself vs. a sense of the unworthiness of such dependence. 5. A readiness to treat others’ well being as important as one’s own vs. an exclusive focus on looking out for number one. The above reflects the deeper fact that value commitments are an essential part of Christian belief, treatments of which must take account of this.”

      I highly recommend it if you have access to that journal. He presented this to a group of Christian grad students in our department and commented that it was received very differently when he presented it in department colloquia elsewhere, which basically proves his point. And like Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology work, he had to spend more time explaining what he wasn’t saying that they were taking him to be saying than actually defending his real point.

      • Thanks for the rec on the Alston paper. I was able to download a PDF through my school library’s sharing system. I just started reading it, and looks to be awesome. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Alston (who is greatly missed).

  7. Sarah’s correct. Van Til -and Frame, Bahnsen, Edgar, Oliphint, etc- aren’t opposed to the use of positive evidences. In the words of Van Til himself, “Accordingly 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. That is to say, if the theistic proof is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid, whatever the attitude of those to whom it comes may be.” (Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. 197) The question at hand isn’t the facts, but one’s “philosophy of fact.”

    It is also a great oversimplification (to the point of misrepresentation) to present presuppositionalism as if it boiled down to “every one has their presuppositions,” something that can easily lead one in the direction of relativism. Van Til’s point was only one cluster of presuppositions (those of biblical Christianity) are equipped to render intelligible the very notions that unbelievers hold dear and attempt to use against Christianity. This leads one as far away from relativism as needed.

    Let’s read Sarah’s comment again.

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