[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.”
- 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)
- John M. Frame. Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994.
- Steven B. Cowan, ed. Five Views on Apologetics. Counterpoints. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
- Timothy Keller. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.
- Interview with Nathan Busenitz on Reasons We Believe
- Gregory Koukl. Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. (Cf. Koukl-Chopra Debate.)
- William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.
- C. Stephen Evans. Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion. Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.
- Douglas Groothuis. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove: IVP, 2011.
- Lee Strobel. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
- Robert L. Reymond. Faith’s Reasons for Believing: An Apologetic Antidote to Mindless Christianity (and to Thoughtless Atheism). Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008.