Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Can We Know the Truth? (A Review)

[Below is a review of Richard Phillip's Can We Know the Truth? I offer it here as a more concise statement or summary of the concerns I have raised in the previous posts.]
This is The Gospel Coalition’s (hereafter TGC) booklet on truth which is part of a series dealing with matters foundational to the Christian faith. Regrettably, while addressing “today’s crisis of truth,” TGC is at certain points on the wrong side of that crisis. That is, if the challenge to truth in our time is the belief that truth is subjective, relative, and not objectively accessible to everyone, then TGC in its statement on truth is part of the problem and not the solution. For instance, to the question which serves as title for this book, “Can we know the truth?,” TGC replies: (1) because of human finitude, truth is “subjective,” “partial,” and “selective” (p. 14); (2) because of sin’s effect on the mind, “humans are no longer able to know truth truly at all” (p. 14); and (3) there is no “objective epistemological ground” between believers and unbelievers that “does not require Christians to ignore the lordship of Jesus” (p. 8)—which is to say, truth is relative to the Christian perspective (broader implication: all knowing is relative to one’s perspective).

It is not insignificant that all these conclusions are in conflict with what a number of respected groups and individuals (both Reformed and evangelical) believe about the concept of truth, such as, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, the Truth Project with Del Tackett, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, R.C. Sproul, Art Lindsley, David Wells, Norman Geisler, Ravi Zacharias, Douglas Groothuis, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, R. Scott Smith, and others.

More importantly, these conclusions derive not from Scripture but modern epistemology (particularly the succession of theories of knowledge from Descartes to Kant), which holds that objective truth or reality exists but is unknowable directly or as it is in itself; it is only knowable indirectly and subjectively based on how the mind views things. (That is, human knowledge cannot be verified against external reality itself.) What TGC is doing is a Christian spin on this epistemology. They have exchanged the humanly centered knowledge of modern epistemology for (as they conceive it) the Christ-centered knowledge that comes subjectively by regeneration through the Spirit, which, in turn, enables them to understand God’s Word. Since God knows everything objectively and perfectly, regenerate persons (again, based on Scripture) escape their unknowing. That is, God’s people only know truth insofar as they know Scripture by the Spirit --- a view of truth which is more narrow than the understanding of truth assumed in Scripture.

There is, of course, truth to what they are claiming but it is an unbiblical exaggeration. For instance, when Moses provides a test for identifying a true prophet (Deuteronomy 18:21-22), he says that if what the prophet predicts come to pass, then the prophet is from God. If it doesn’t come to pass, the prophet is not from God. If we think of the prophet as a potential author of Scripture, then consider what God is saying here. In order to confirm such the people had to know the meaning of what the prophet said and know whether or not it came to pass. That is, there is in this case an underlying assumption that the prophetic text had meaning and people could reliably and objectively know it. There is also an assumption that the small sliver of history involved in confirming (or not) that the prophecy was true was also reliably, objectively knowable. Do we understand what this means for knowing? The people were obviously finite and sinful, yet God is commanding them through Moses to use their minds to know the meaning of the prophecy and determine through empirical observation whether or not the prophecy came true. What does God not say? He doesn’t tell them to rely on regeneration or the inner confirmation of the Spirit to determine whether or not the prophecy was from God. (Not that the Holy Spirit doesn’t do this in believers.) He also doesn’t point them to Scripture, since what qualifies truly as Scripture is what is at issue here. So, the point is that due to the latter, the people couldn’t rely on Scripture as a condition for knowing in general that would provide presuppositions necessary to determine whether or not someone was truly a prophet. Apparently, being made in the image of God as knowers and sustained by His providential goodness for knowledge, the people were able—again, finite and sinful though they were—to reliably and objectively know whether or not a prophecy had come to pass and, hence, whether or not a particular person was a prophet from God.

Consequently, TGC has, in my judgment, mistakenly associated human finitude and the effects of sin on the mind with a general errancy or defectiveness for knowing which, again, derives from philosophy but is foreign both to the assumptions of Scripture and our common experience. The difference between God as infinite and humans as finite entails no innate necessity that our knowledge of things like 1+1=2 or at what temperature water boils, etc. is defective or errant. And the effects of sin on the mind does not mean people cannot know truth in any sense. Obviously, we regularly observe unregenerate persons (scientists, doctors, professors, construction workers, etc.) knowing truth at some level. I suggest that sin’s effect on the mind concerns not whether people can know truth but what they do with it.

In general, TGC’s apparently adopting modern epistemology’s problems for knowing for explicating human finitude and sin shifts the Bible’s diagnosis of the problem of humankind from that of sin (which involves, at some level, successful knowing as Romans 1-3 clearly demonstrates) to that of knowledge. Accordingly, the solution to this problem (as TGC presents it) is not, as a matter of priority, a Savior from sin but a way of knowing (the basic tenets of Christian belief) which first makes truth or knowledge possible in general and, second (or afterward), appropriately frames the belief that Jesus is Lord. Hence, when modernists and postmodernists claim that truth is relative, in a sense, TGC agrees with them. Only TGC would say that truth is relative to Christian presuppositions. This also means that when unbelievers reject TGC’s invitation to, “Please try our way of knowing,” they will tend to walk away feeling—precisely because of this approach—justified and confirmed in their own relativism.

The “crisis of truth” in our time, I suggest, is not all that different from what was in the air in the first century due to ancient Greek thinkers like Plato, Protagorus, Pyrrho, and the Sophists. Jesus and the apostles did not respond to such a “crisis” of their age by accepting or integrating some of its problems for knowing (certain skeptical tenets) with what Scripture teaches about human finitude or sin. A bit more bluntly, Jesus and the apostles (including the apostle Paul who was no doubt familiar with such) ignored what the Greek philosophers said about truth. They held, for instance (in contrast to what skeptics have always believed on this), to the important, even foundational, role of the “witness” (what we might call a “knowerness” or “knower in state”) for grounding truth (see what Jesus says in John 5, for example). This contrasts starkly with the view stated in TGC’s booklet on truth: “With the postmoderns we are skeptical that finite, fallible humans are agents of truth” (p. 12). (That is, TGC is saying: “we are skeptical that people can be witnesses for truth.”)

If one does nothing more than study carefully the apostle Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and notice that there is no indication that the unregenerate persons to whom he is addressing himself are unable to know things generally or reliably—that there is no objective ground for truth between him and them. Peter doesn’t, first, make an indirect appeal for Christianity as a belief system or perspective before presenting his argument for Jesus as the Messiah. He directly builds his case for the latter explicitly noting that the people to whom he is preaching (though unregenerate) knew certain things, such as, that the languages they were seeing (as tongues of fire over heads) and hearing were miraculous; that Jesus had worked miracles among them as a divine attestation to his ministry; that King David died, his body was in the tomb they all knew about, such that the prophecy, “you will not let your holy one see corruption,” must have been intended not for David but for one of David’s sons. Peter then claims that he and the other apostles and disciples were eyewitnesses (yes, as in a court room, “agents for truth”) that Jesus, a descendant of King David, had been raised from the dead. Peter then closes his sermon with: “let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ.”

Three thousand people were persuaded by the compelling case Peter made that day for the verdict that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The presentation of the case demonstrates that Peter, regenerate as he was, nevertheless saw himself as on the same objective ground for truth with these unregenerate people. The established truth that Jesus is Lord became the basis, then, for a change in presuppositions held previously by the people. Importantly, however, their unbelieving presuppositions did not prevent them from intelligibly encountering the truth as Peter presented it. (We can know things that don’t fit our presuppositions.) What happened to those persuaded of this truth, afterward, is that a whole new set of presuppositions began to be developed (that is, the appropriate Christian presuppositions).

Therefore, however, we conceive of regeneration by the Spirit and knowledge gained through Scripture, it must not conflict with apostolic assumptions and practice as found in places like the Book of Acts. Undoubtedly, the unregenerate do not know the truth as it is in Jesus with the life-changing, spiritually enlightening power that the regenerate experience. But there is a sense in which truth—even the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ—is public truth and as such is knowable for everyone. This is what makes people accountable for disobeying that message (2 Thessalonians 1:8), since they would not be so, if for lack of Christian presuppositions they were entirely ignorant or did not understand its truth in any sense.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Ten Problems with Presuppositionalism (A Summary Including a Response to John Frame)


          As is evident in their booklet, Can We Know the Truth?, by Richard Phillips, The Gospel Coalition tacitly supports presuppositionalism. This is the view, first, that our presuppositions (things we suppose before we know anything else) entirely condition knowledge or truth for us — that is, are nothing less than the very basis for rational thought. Put differently, when it comes to knowing reality, presuppositions are like glasses cemented to our faces. We cannot see God or other persons or anything else outside of us directly but only indirectly through the conceptual framework or presuppositional state of the mind. Second, the only appropriate presuppositions to know God and objective truth come to believers through regeneration by the Spirit and the knowledge of Scripture. It is the adoption of this approach to reality which explains why The Gospel Coalition claims that there is no common ground for truth between believers and unbelievers. According to presuppositionalism, then, those with non-Christian presuppositions (lacking the appropriate glasses) cannot know objective truth and must therefore, first, be taught to accept Christian presuppositions (the appropriate glasses) so they can know truth in general and, in particular, that Jesus is Lord. Below I provide ten problems associated with presuppositionalism, as I have defined it, and then list these problems again with explanations.

***

Update: I have appended below a response to Dr. Frame's "Ten Problems with Presuppositionalism Answered." Many thanks to him for graciously taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my ten problems. I trust my readers will understand that though I am sure Dr. Frame is greatly esteemed by the members of The Gospel Coalition council and would, perhaps, be in agreement with much of what they have written at their website and in their booklet on truth, yet he is still his own thinker. For instance, in his answer to problem #7 about how presuppositionalism denies that the unregenerate can know truth objectively, Frame says: "Rom. 1 tells us that non-believers know God clearly from the things he has made. So in fact they CAN know truth truly and objectively." I was pleasantly surprised by that but it shows, at least on that point, how he differs with The Gospel Coalition.

Update #2 (09/09/2016): To their credit, on March 12, 2012 The Gospel Coalition posted an article by Paul Copan, which thoughtfully highlights certain problems with presuppositionalism (such as its question-begging nature, its denial of a common ground or public case for the truth between believers and unbelievers, etc.).

***


Ten Problems with Presuppositionalism


1. Presuppositionalism denies the biblical assumption of the public nature of the truth of the gospel. 


2. Presuppositionalism alters the task of evangelism such that the priority of presenting the apostolic case for Jesus as Lord takes a back seat to first persuading people to accept the general tenets of Christian belief.


3. Presuppositionalism adopts a coherence rather than correspondence account of truth which is assumed in Scripture and by our God-given, common sense.


4. Presuppositionalism is a relatively new, twentieth-century doctrine, philosophical in nature and unknown to the apostles and prophets through whom God gave us the Scriptures.


5. Presuppositionalism, as a doctrinal mixture of philosophy and Christian Reformed theology, violates a cardinal principle which is perhaps most distinctive to that theology, namely, sola Scriptura (or Scripture alone as the basis for our faith and practice). 


6. Presuppositionalism boldly recasts what the Bible says is fundamentally a problem of sin as a problem of knowing.


7. Presuppositionalism claims that apart from regeneration in Christ and the Scriptures people cannot know or convey truth truly or objectively.

8. Presuppositionalism weakens by implication the church's public stance for truth.

9. Presuppositionalism indirectly confirms the relativism of our age by affirming that truth is relative to Christian presuppositions.

10. Presuppositionalism burdens uneducated (and even educated) persons in the church both here in America and throughout the world with obscure problems about knowledge or truth that they are in no position to understand or evaluate.


***

Ten Problems with Presuppositionalism Explained

1. Presuppositionalism denies the biblical assumption of the public nature of the truth of the gospel.

          Presuppositionalism's "for believers only" approach to truth rejects what the Bible assumes about the gospel as is evident in the apostolic sermons in 
Acts (for instance, see Acts 2:1-36) namely, the court room, public, shared-objective-ground nature of its truth, including the role of witnesses and evidences supporting the reasonable conclusion (or verdict) that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord and Messiah. By implication, presuppositionalism leads one to conclude that in the book of Acts the apostles mistakenly and routinely appealed to "neutral facts" and a common ground for truth between believers and unbelievers.  


            For instance, in the passage just highlighted (Acts 2:1-36), Peter begins his sermon to people who did not have Christian presuppositions (a reasonable assumption since they had just recently crucified Jesus) with the exhortation, "let this be known to you" (2:14). Now if Peter thought (as presuppositionalists do) that the absence of the tenets of the Christian faith in these people to whom he was preaching prevented them from knowing anything at all  — that is, kept them from having what was necessary for rational thought — would we not see him first providing such tenets before continuing with what he had to say? Instead, what does he do? Peter exhibits throughout his sermon a confidence that these people with non-Christian presuppositions did know certain things and at the same time did not know certain other things critical to their salvation. That is, Peter did not relate to the people as if all their knowing up to this point was false or untrue, because they lacked Christian presuppositions. There was, indeed, not a hint of that notion that what Peter had to say to the people was “for believers only.” What he offered was truth, in an important sense, for everyone. Hence, as Peter proceeds with his intention to “let this be known to you,” let us notice that he always (as in a court of law) assumes a shared ground for objective truth between himself and his audience of unbelievers:


            1. Peter says that the people with tongues of fire over their heads who were speaking of the mighty works of God in languages they had not learned were not drunk since it was about nine o’clock in the morning (2:15). Notice that this is an inductive argument based on probability. Technically, the whole lot of them could have been hitting the bottle that early in the day but, based on what people generally do, such a thing is highly improbable. Let us notice here that Peter is reasoning with the people as if what they knew and what he knows are, in some sense, the same (that is, the same basic, rational framework). They have the same intelligent experience of the world: people don’t generally get drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. Without this shared ground for truth, Peter couldn’t have argued even this little point. So whatever Peter is going to make known to the people here in his sermon in Acts 2 belongs, in some important sense, to the same universally knowable reality everyone is familiar with.


            2. Peter says in the early part of his message in Acts 2 that the miraculous ability these disciples had to speak of the “mighty works of God” in languages that they had not learned was the fulfillment of something else they knew about: the prophecy in Joel 2 of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days. He is implying that the people are successfully knowing that these people are miraculously speaking in foreign languages and can know that this special demonstration of God’s power is the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy.   


            3. Next, Peter speaks of Jesus of Nazareth, “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (2:22). Again, there is no indication of a problem for knowledge. Peter states plainly, “as you yourselves know,” to remind them that they do know certain things. Again, he does not treat their knowledge, thus far or on these particular specifics, as a problem. We observe, instead, that Peter in carrying out his intent to “let this be known to you” (2:14) is presenting — one after the other — all these items of knowledge together as he prepares to deliver some knowledge (that is, the gospel) to the people that they don’t know.


            4. Peter now addresses directly the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth “by the hands of lawless men” (2:23). They all knew about the death of Jesus. This is “neutral ground,” we might say. Shared, objective ground for truth. But then Peter suddenly adds something to this knowledge that they didn’t know: “God raised him [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (2:24). Realizing that this is a controversial claim (no doubt many had heard about it and taken it to be a false rumor), Peter quotes King David from Psalm 16:8-11, and, in particular, I note (as Peter himself does) this particular Messianic promise, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (v. 10). Peter says, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (2:29). What is it for Peter to speak “with confidence” that David is dead? Is it not the same thing as saying, “I know for certain that David is dead, and if anyone has doubts about this, go check out his tomb.” Implication? The prophecy of a “Holy One” whose body God would not allow to “see corruption” cannot apply to David, because if it did, then clearly it is false. Is this confident knowing something only Peter had? When he says, “I may say to you with confidence,” is it not true that everyone among those thousands listening to him that day could say the same thing? Did anyone doubt that David was dead? Is this not common knowledge? Wasn't David's tomb a shared, public certainty for knowing that David was dead? More importantly, for the broader question of presuppositionalism itself: Has Peter said anything up to this point that might support presuppositionalism? That is, has he said anything that might encourage the people to whom he was speaking to believe that their knowledge of the things set forth so far was not rational, not true knowledge, or not reliable as an apprehension of reality, particularly, because they lacked Christian presuppositions?   


            5. Since the prophecy could not have applied to King David, to whom did it apply? Peter has an answer for that: “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (2:30-32). Again, this is what we might call court room epistemology, that is, the same conceptual framework for truth and knowledge that undergirds testimony in a court room. If the defendant and his lawyer, on the other hand, had a special way of knowing things and tried to make a case based on such, would it not be thrown out? Why? Without a common ground for truth, the very purpose of a trial would be thwarted. Underlying court room epistemology assumes that truth — however difficult to obtain — is nevertheless knowable, and we all have the same way of knowing it.

          What is a “witness”? A “wit” is one who knows. The suffix, “ness,” indicates the office, state, or quality of something. A “witness,” we might say then is a “knower-ness, “knower in state,” or “knower of interest.” A “witness” is someone who knows something pertinent to a case and knows it the same way everyone else (the judge, the attorneys, the jury, those present in the court room, and the public beyond the court room) involved in the trial knows things. A “witness,” we might say, is a surrogate knower for the rest of us who do not have the particular experience of that “witness” but could have had such if we had been where they were — or saw or heard what they did. A “witness” is not someone who knows things in a unique, special, or esoteric way different from others. Anything uniquely subjective in that manner may be interesting or even inviting but cannot be binding as public knowledge on others nor helpful in an objective veridical quest. When the apostles, therefore, claimed to be (as Peter says in 2:32) “witnesses” of the risen Lord, they meant that they saw Jesus in the same way others could have seen him had they been there (see also 1 John 1:1-3). The apostles heard the risen Jesus the same way others could have. The apostles ate with Jesus in the same way others could have done had they been there. The apostles were (and are for us who weren’t there) — again — surrogate knowers and assumes (obviously) a shared, universal ground for truth. Otherwise, it carries no weight toward the public or true-for-everyone conclusion that Jesus truly has been raised from the dead (see also 1 Corinthians 15:4-8). Finally, all of the foregoing implies that a "witness" — though not always reliable — may actually offer objective truth or serve faithfully as an agent of truth. This is why our Lord and his apostles employ Moses's standard for establishing the truth of a matter by the evidence of two or three witnesses (see Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). If, on the other hand, presuppositionalism is correct in its denial that humans can even have reliable, objective knowledge — or, as The Gospel Coalition puts it, "With the postmoderns we are skeptical that finite, fallible humans are the agents of truth" (Can We Know the Truth?, p. 12) — then the Bible is, on that account, simply in error when it assumes that witnesses can settle the truth of a matter. Under such skepticism, it would amount to a rule that witnesses cloud more than clarify whether or not something is true or false. 


            As we return to the sermon before us in Acts 2, Peter is now at the end of making his case for Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. He has made the connection between David’s prophecy of a Messiah whose body would not be subject to decay and Jesus of Nazareth as risen by God from the dead. Then he makes the connection between the outpouring of the Spirit they were all beholding (the fulfillment of Joel 2) and the exaltation of Jesus as the Messiah (2:33). That is, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Spirit, he [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (2:33). Again, Peter goes back to King David, “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” (2:34) Then notice how Peter delivers the conclusion of his argument: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36). So what begins with Peter’s “let this be known to you” (2:14) and is marked by reminders of knowing throughout — “as you yourselves know” (2:22), “I may say to you with confidence” (2:29), “of that we are all witnesses” (2:32), “he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (2:33) — ends with, “Let all the house of Israel know for certain” (2:36).   


            Given this plain evidence, therefore, that the apostle Peter in Acts 2 and the other apostles in general (including Paul) always spoke to unbelievers (or those who had no Christian presuppositions) as if there was common ground for truth between them, it clearly puts the apostles in a bad light — makes them in effect what presuppositionalists pejoratively call: "modern evidentialists," if presuppositionalists are correct in their account of knowledge or truth. Moreover, if it dishonors the lordship of Jesus Christ (as presuppositionalists claim — see Can We Know the Truth?, p. 8) to relate to unbelievers as if there is such a neutral or common ground for truth, then obviously the apostles routinely dishonored their Lord in their way of reasoning with unbelievers.


2. Presuppositionalism alters the task of evangelism such that the priority of presenting the apostolic case for Jesus as Lord takes a back seat to first persuading people to accept the general tenets of Christian belief.

          In a sense, the Bible is God’s case, fifteen hundred years in the making, for Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Messiah. God made this case for the whole world, not just believers. It is true for everyone, understandable in some sense by everyone. Everyone, presented with that case, is thus accountable to God in a way they wouldn't be, if it had not been presented to them. This is part of the rationale in Christ's command to take his gospel to all the nations. When Christ appears, every knee will bow — not just those who are regenerate. At that time, everyone will
know (even the unregenerate) that Jesus is Lord.



          When Paul reminds the Corinthian saints of the gospel that he had received and faithfully delivered to them, what one reads is this very case God had made: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [and then to] more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6). Indeed, with respect to this gospel, the apostles saw themselves as stewards and messengers under God’s authority — not to “practice cunning” or “tamper with” God’s case for Jesus as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:2) but — to boldly and faithfully repeat that case to the nations (1 Corinthians 4:1-2; Ephesians 3:2; 1 Peter 4:10). Accordingly, the apostles did not alter or play with that message — or deliver it as an afterthought. They knew what they were supposed to say to people, right off, in obeying the Great Commission. And they said it wherever they went. (Again, a study of the sermons in the book of
Acts makes this quite clear.)


          In contrast, presuppositionalism undermines this faithful, apostolic stewardship of the gospel by getting things backward — that is, it argues first and directly for the tenets of the Christian faith, as the framework for knowing in general and then indirectly for knowing in particular that Jesus is Lord. In contrast, the apostles (as just stated) make a public, argumentative case directly for the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord, thereby implying that the tenets of the Christian faith will be embraced by people (as they devote themselves to the apostles' teaching as in Acts 2:42) after they are first persuaded of that conclusion. In any case, there is not a single instance in Acts of an apostle first persuading unbelievers of the tenets of Christian belief before making the case that Jesus is Lord.

3. Presuppositionalism adopts a coherence rather than correspondence account of truth which is assumed in Scripture and by our God-given, common sense.

          A coherence view of truth holds that “truth is what coheres with everything else we believe,” while a correspondence understanding of truth is that “truth is what corresponds to reality” [1]. Because presuppositionalism overstates the role of regeneration and the Bible by claiming that these are necessary
to know truth at all (or objectively), it actually has a coherence view of truth. When a presuppositionalist claims to support a correspondence account of truth, this is justified by defining truth as “that which corresponds to what the Bible says.” However, the father of presuppositionalism, Cornelius Van Til, understood that presuppositionalism, technically speaking, is a coherence theory [2]. He called it a correspondence account to differentiate it from the coherence associated with modern idealism (from Descartes to Kant) which viewed knowing as subjective, autonomous, and man-centered. To be sure, Van Til also believes that since God alone has knowledge of objective reality and has made, at least in part, that reality known through Christ and Scripture, what the regenerate receive by that means does indeed correspond to reality (at least, in an analogous sense). It is important to recognize, nonetheless, that presuppositionalism has a “for believer’s only” approach to truth which means that truth is entirely presuppositional or perspectival in nature — that is, presuppositionalism fundamentally supports features for knowing (the Bible made known subjectively through regeneration) that begin first with the inside (or the mind and its conditions for knowing), and then looks outward to assess what it sees. This internal conditioning for knowledge is consistent, therefore, with a coherence view of truth. Therefore, its claim that truth corresponds to reality represents a philosophically non-orthodox understanding of correspondence-truth and is actually (again, consistent with modern epistemology) internal to a coherence view of truth that arose historically in distinction (if not opposition) to a correspondence view of truth.


4. Presuppositionalism is a relatively new, twentieth-century doctrine, philosophical in nature and unknown to the apostles and prophets through whom God gave us the Scriptures.

          Presuppositionalism is foreign to Scripture and church history until the twentieth century, when Cornelius Van Til (just mentioned) integrated modern philosophy and Reformed theology in a unique manner. Since then it has become increasingly popular, particularly, as a belief inseparable from what it means to be appropriately “Reformed” (or Calvinistic) in one's approach to communicating the gospel to unbelievers. However, presuppositionalism 
would not have been possible apart from philosophy — particularly, its idealistic, subjective, or mind-centered proposals for knowing. The latter means that truth is regarded as primarily mental or perspectival in nature. Presuppositionalism accepts this aspect of modern epistemology. Notably, on the other hand, it rejects what idealism ordinarily entails, namely, man-centeredness. Instead of that, presuppositionalism recenters knowledge in the mind of Christ as made known to us by the Spirit and Scripture. In other words, Van Til offers a Christian Reformed version of an idealistic epistemology (way of knowing). However, as Christ-honoring as this doctrine seems to be, truth is not primarily mental but extra-mental in nature, as is abundantly clear based on what the Bible assumes and our God-given, common sense. If we apply a right answer (which surely Van Til attempted to do) to a wrong problem (invented by modern philosophers), the result will be wrong — even if clothed in (or recast by) Scripture [3]. It will also lead to a new nest of problems (detailed here and throughout my posts).

 
5. Presuppositionalism, as a doctrinal mixture of philosophy and Christian Reformed theology, violates a cardinal principle which is perhaps most distinctive to that theology, namely, sola Scriptura (or Scripture alone as the basis for our faith and practice).

          The question we must ask ourselves here is this: Is Scripture
sufficient for the Christian faith — or not? Are we getting the content of truth from Scripture, while turning to philosophy for our concept of truth? Do we not understand how the concept of truth can affect the content of truth, even when it comes from Scripture? Does Scripture make the man or woman of God complete — or not (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? Does not The Westminster Confession declare that "the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added [emphasis mine - jnp], whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men" (chapter one, section six)? If philosophy, as applied or mixed with Christianity or Reformed theology, is thus elevated in status as divine revelation in some sense on a par with Scripture (let's say, as "general revelation"), then the concept of truth will always be subject to the experimental and ever-changing work of the philosophers. And what else should the church be learning and mixing with the Christian faith from philosophy, the various fields of learning, or other extrabiblical sources? Do we now have, basically, two sources of revelation? Scripture and human tradition? (That combination which Reformers like Luther and Calvin rejected, particularly, as found in Roman Catholicism.) Furthermore, did Jesus or the apostles ever concern themselves with what the philosophers were saying? Did they ever appeal to what the philosophers thought on any topic at all? Did Paul, who no doubt knew much of what the various Greek philosophers believed — including ideas similar to the mind-centered and relativistic proposals for knowing associated with the modern philosophers in that lineage from Descartes to Kant — ever show any deference or the slightest concern for such things? Did he not, rather, warn the church against the deceitfulness and captivity associated with such (Colossians 2:8)? In another place, did Paul not warn us of what passes for "science" or knowledge among worldly authorities (1 Timothy 6:20-21)? In sum, John MacArthur wisely writes, "Whoever criticizes, questions, challenges, subtracts from or adds to the authoritative Word of God is ultimately undermining the divine authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and putting man, the creature, in a place of authority instead" (Why Believe the Bible?, p. 81).
 
 
6. Presuppositionalism boldly recasts what the Bible says is fundamentally a problem of sin as a problem of knowing.

          Presuppositionalism changes what the Bible presents as
a problem of sin (which involves a certain level of successful knowing) into a problem of knowing or epistemology (see, for example, Romans 1-3); this sets up its apologetic need to first address the issue of knowing by convincing people of the coherence of the tenets of Christian belief (point #3 above) so they can know things in general and then know, in particular, that Jesus is Lord. However, the Bible teaches that Jesus saves us from sin, not a state of unknowing in general. The Scriptures make clear that we are born again unto God — not knowing or intelligence in general.


7. Presuppositionalism claims that apart from regeneration in Christ and the Scriptures people cannot know or convey truth truly or objectively.

          Presuppositionalism holds (elaborating on point #6 above) that due to human finitude and the effects of sin on the mind there is a universal problem for knowing itself — that is, apart from regeneration and the Bible people cannot be agents for truth or serve the important, biblical and civil role of witnesses (knowers of interest) on behalf of truth. The latter is held to be true because, again, presuppositionalism maintains that regeneration and the Bible are the very conditions for knowing not only the gospel but truth in general. This means that apart from the Bible we cannot know anything truly or reliably. It also implies, at a minimum, that people who are made new in Christ and have the Bible will far exceed in knowledge those who are unregenerate and ignorant of the Bible in every field of endeavor (such as, for example, doctors, lawyers, business persons, teachers, construction workers, etc.). However, common experience clearly indicates that this is not the case. Thus presuppositionalism overstates the negative effects of finitude and sin in relation to knowing truth, as well as, what regeneration and the Bible actually provide for truth.

          The Bible assumes, on the other hand, that people can know truth in an ordinary sense. Without that assumption, the people of Israel could not have observed Moses's test for identifying a false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). That is, if what the prophet said did not come to pass, then, according to Moses, that person was a false prophet. We may reasonably assume that to make such a determination people would need to be able to know the truth about what the prophet had predicted and the truth as to whether or not the prophecy had come to pass. True prophecy is on a par with Scripture (as God's Word), if not part of Scripture itself. In this case, a prophecy is identified as true (or on a par with or as Scripture) based on human reason and observation
apart from Scripture (since what potentially qualifies as Scripture is what is at issue). If because of the negative effects of finitude and sin on knowing, regeneration and Scripture provide the only conditions for knowing anything truly, Moses's test would not have worked. That is, the people of Israel did not in this case have prophecy or Scripture as a standard (or condition for knowing) to determine whether or not a particular prophecy was true or from God. Therefore, if "unaided reason" is defined as "reason and observation apart from Scripture," the people were commanded by God through Moses to use their "unaided reason" to determine if a particular prophecy (and prophet) was false.

          Some say, as Van Til did, that this problem of knowledge that unbelievers have is true “in principle.” However, a comment like that is ambiguous. Notice that we wouldn’t say that “in principle” an apple loosed from its branch falls to the ground. Strictly speaking, of course, as a matter of “principle” (gravity) an apple thus loosed does fall to the ground. But this is not how we use the expression in question. What we generally mean when we claim that something is true “in principle” is that
in reality it is not always so or that there are other principles or factors that must be accounted for. For instance, “in principle” Christians are indwelt by the Spirit, while “in principle” they are also indwelt by sin (see Romans 7 and 8). Hence, Christians do not always behave righteously. If presuppositionalism’s qualification that the state of unknowing the unregenerate have is “in principle,” does that mean that there is another sense which “in principle” the unregenerate do know things in general? And if the latter is true, does that knowledge have anything to do with a common ground between believers and unbelievers both for presenting and receiving the truth of the gospel?  The point is that if the state of unknowing which presuppositionalism claims for the unregenerate is "in principle" only — that there is another "principle" or sense in which such persons can know truth truly — then it seems there could be "neutral facts" or a common ground for truth between the regenerate and the unregenerate (as is evident, again, in the manner in which the apostles reasoned with the unregenerate in Acts). One cannot have it both ways: either people can know things in some sense relevant to the argumentative and public case God has made for the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, or they cannot know things such that any such argumentative case would be like speaking to people in an unknown tongue.


8. Presuppositionalism weakens by implication the church's public stance for truth.


          Presuppositionalism in its rejection of public truth (or common ground for knowledge between believer and unbeliever)
implies that on issues pertaining to civic morality (such as, abortion or same-sex marriage) the public does not have the appropriate presuppositions to understand biblical truth and, hence, that it doesn’t make sense for the church to confront these issues directly and in a public manner. However, when John the Baptist confronted Herod for living with his brother’s wife or Jesus testified of the world that its deeds were evil or Timothy (as tradition says) confronted an idolatrous parade with its foolishness, did any of these men think that because the people they confronted had the wrong presuppositions that it wouldn’t make sense to confront them with the truth? We are living in a time when it is particularly important for the church to be "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 4:15). Sadly, the tendency both in and outside the church is "to live and let live" — to be silent in the face of a rapid cultural descent into evil. Truly, the fields are white unto harvest. What if the Lord is calling his church to be a Daniel, Elijah, or Stephen — a Peter or a Paul — but what the church learns from its leaders is that it doesn't have a shared basis for truth in speaking to outsiders? That if people aren't Christians — or don't think Christianly — they won't understand what we're talking about? Wouldn't that belief's influence, therefore, be more consistent with silence rather than speaking — with a reed shaken by the wind rather than a pillar and foundation for the truth?

 
9. Presuppositionalism indirectly confirms the relativism of our age by affirming that truth is relative to Christian presuppositions.

          Presuppositionalism indirectly justifies the subjectivism and relativism of our time by holding that the truth that Jesus is Lord is relative to Christian presuppositions which must be embraced subjectively (through regeneration by the Spirit to understand Scripture) before that truth itself can make sense at all (that is,
people need to believe in order to believe); hence, in making such a claim, presuppositionalism implies that it embraces the broader claim that truth itself is relative to one’s presuppositions, perspective, or viewpoint. Consequently, when unbelievers say “no thank you” to presuppositionalism’s relativistic offer (the “try it you’ll like it” approach) of putting on Christian glasses to experience the world (and the possibility that Jesus is Lord while they’re at it), they will go away perhaps feeling confirmed in their own relativism saying to the presuppositionalists talking to them “that’s your thing not mine” or, more pragmatically, “that may work for you but it’s not for me.”


10. Presuppositionalism burdens uneducated (and even educated) persons in the church both here in America and throughout the world with obscure problems about knowledge or truth that they are in no position to understand or evaluate.

          Presuppositionalism risks introducing into the church, globally speaking (and particularly under The Gospel Coalition's influence), speculative, complex, and controversial problems from philosophy which most of its people (including pastors) are not able to understand or evaluate. If, as Jesus indicates, our Father’s good pleasure is to reveal the things of the kingdom to “babes” in understanding (the uneducated; Matthew 11:25) and if, as Paul says, there are not, by the world’s standards, many who are “wise” in the church (1 Corinthians 1:26) — or we might say: “up to speed on things philosophical” — then, again, do we not risk (through a doctrine like presuppositionalism) placing a burden on the church which, to borrow Peter’s words from a different context,  “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”? Whereas we are surely warranted in affirming as a creedal statement the
clarity of Scripture (as The Westminster Confession of Faith does) pertaining to “those things [in Scripture] which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” (chapter one, section seven), are we in like manner prepared to say the same thing about the tenets of presuppositionalism? Especially as we think of the large growth of the church in non-Western parts of the earth (Africa, China, South America, etc.) do we really think that indoctrinating them in Jesus's name to embrace claims like “there are no neutral facts” or “because of finitude and sin we cannot know truth truly” or “all knowledge is presuppositional” or “there is no shared, objective ground for truth between Christians and non-Christians that honors the Lord” — that they can understand claims like these? That we are serving the global church well by introducing them to such speculative and skeptical notions about truth? And where would they go in Scripture to test such claims? Wouldn’t they have to go to the philosophers to really understand them?

          In addition, there have always been philosophers who did not buy the idea that our knowledge of reality is mind-centered (as the philosophers in the succession of Descartes through Kant believed). One has only to note that in the late twentieth century and up to the present time, the methodological aspect (its subjectivity and mind-centeredness) of modern epistemology that Van Til accepted so as to re-interpret it as a Reformed Christian thinker is now rejected by many philosophers in our time. That conflict between realists and idealists (or, since the terms have changed, externalists and internalists) is tilting toward realism or externalism. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga believes the mind-centered construction of reality represented by modern philosophers like Kant is itself (apart from any possible Christian re-interpretation of it)
completely wrong and incompatible with Christianity.
[4]  In Seeing Things as They Are (2015), John Searle calls this notion that we can only know things as they appear and not as they are “the bad argument.” He argues that that sort of thinking amounts to “one of the biggest mistakes in philosophy in the past several centuries.” [5] My point is, of course, that for his presuppositionalism Van Til accepted an aspect of modern epistemology that has been soundly discredited by respected philosophers. I mean, so as not to be misunderstood: the view that our knowledge of reality is entirely presuppositional, idealistic, or perspectival due to the subjective nature of knowing itself is regarded by many respected philosophers today as untenable. And even if one clings to that view in the face of such formidable opposition, at least it would seem reasonable (would it not?) to acknowledge that the introduction into the church of a questionable doctrine like presuppositionalism — a philosophically controversial and obscure matter — surely warrants concern, if not reevaluation.




[1] Some mistakenly suppose that this definition of truth as "what corresponds to reality" originates from philosophy, is foreign to the Bible, and thus a threat to sound Christian doctrine. Actually there is nothing philosophical about it. It might seem different or technical in its wording to those who are unfamiliar with philosophy, but the philosophers themselves recognize this definition as a "naive" or common sense understanding of truth — that is, what most people in all places and times mean by "truth." Hence, a dictionary, for instance, will typically define "truth" as "conformity to fact or reality." Whether one says "conforms" or "corresponds" or "matches" or "agrees with" — it is all the same thing. Quite importantly, for Christians, it is also what the Bible assumes as its definition of truth. In Scripture and Truth ("The Biblical Concept of Truth," pp. 287-298), edited by D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, Roger Nicole presents a comprehensive study (Old and New Testaments) of what the Bible means by "truth" and concludes that it means "conformity to fact." For instance, in the ninth commandment when God commands Israel, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," he means (put positively) that we are to speak the truth or what conforms to facts or reality concerning our neighbor.
[2] See, for example,
A Survey of Christian Epistemology (chapter one, sections 3-6), where Van Til explains that his view of correspondence is not the traditional one, that is, not about an idea one may have and its correspondence to what is "out there" in the world; rather, truth is a correspondence between our ideas and God's ideas or, to express the same thing, "truth is what corresponds to God's self-disclosure in Scripture." Van Til's only complaint with the coherence account of truth is that it is man-centered (or a law to itself) and so has no place for the self-disclosure of God in Scripture as the ultimate reference point for truth. But in terms of "the form of the matter" (ch. 1, sect. 5; or what we might call the shape or structure of knowing), Van Til clearly states that an appropriate Christian epistemology actually "stands closer to" coherence than correspondence. In sum, Van Til's presuppositionalism gives us a theory of knowing that is neither a matter of correspondence nor of coherence, as those terms generally are understood in philosophy; however, if his theory is compared to either of those, it is (by Van Til's own admission) more like coherence than correspondence.
[3] Presuppositionalists use Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 to support the idea that there is no common ground for truth between a believer and unbeliever. However (and as I argue at greater length elsewhere in these posts), in these passages Paul was obviously not integrating epistemological problems (of the sort raised by modern philosophy) with Christianity. That sort of interpretation has to be artificially read into (or imposed upon) the text rather than found in it. 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 is written to and about those who are regenerate (that is, the Corinthian Christians, not the unregenerate in general); it concerns the inability of "the flesh" or "natural man" to appreciate (not understand or apprehend in any sense) the things of God about which the apostle wanted to write. In addition, 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 is a call to the people of God to be holy — to realize that, religiously and spiritually, they had no common ground with idolators and their evil practices. Christians share life in the Spirit with one another but not with those who aren't Christians. Such a statement, however, is a far cry from claiming that Christians have no shared ground (in any sense) for truth with unbelievers.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 331.
[5] John Searle, Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 10-11.



***

Ten Problems with Presuppositionalism Revisited





 1.    Presuppositionalism denies the biblical assumption of

the public nature of the truth of the gospel. 



John Frame: There are, of course, different kinds of presuppositionalists. I cannot speak for all of them. I myself am closest to Van Til and Bahnsen. I don’t believe that either of them said anything in conflict with the public nature of the truth of the Gospel. It is clear that Scripture refers to public events—the history of Israel, the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his cross and resurrection, the apostolic expansion of the church. Many of these events were miraculous, and Scripture (as in 1 Cor. 15) stresses the public nature of the events and the testimony about them. Van Til always insisted that factual evidences were an important aspect of apologetics. But of course he also insisted that these evidences be presented in the context of a biblical epistemology, not as a conclusion of autonomous thinking.



Joseph Partain: I did not question that presuppositionalism recognizes in some sense the public nature of the gospel. In my explanation of problem #1, I said that presuppositionalism’s “for believers only” approach to relating the gospel to others denies its public nature. For example, what makes an otherwise public joke private is that there are people in the audience who don’t know something essential to the punch line. Perhaps only a few people are in the know and thus able to get the joke. Moreover, if one were to object to the private nature of such a joke, it wouldn’t help to get the reply: “But the joke was told publicly.”  One might even say that compared to a private joke, things are even worse for knowledge in a presuppositionalist’s denial that an unbeliever has what is necessary for rational thought itself or any common ground for truth with a believer. At least with a private joke, even those who aren’t on the inside have common ground enough to know what was said, even if they don’t know what wasn’t said that made the joke funny. Hence, a presuppositionalist views a presentation of the truth of the gospel — however public it may otherwise be — as more private than the most private joke. It is only in the last sentence that the actual issue problem #1 highlights is touched on: “But of course he [Van Til] also insisted that these evidences be presented in the context of a biblical epistemology, not as a conclusion of autonomous thinking.” What is meant by Van Til’s insistence on “a biblical epistemology” and no “autonomous thinking” in relation to evidences accounts for what I am identifying as presuppositionalism’s non-public approach to the truth of the gospel. Put simply, presuppositionalism’s claim that between a believer and unbeliever there are no common or neutral facts means that there are no public facts — facts are relative to (or made private by) one’s presuppositions.



2. Presuppositionalism alters the task of evangelism such that the priority of presenting the apostolic case for Jesus as Lord takes a back seat to first persuading people to accept the general tenets of Christian belief.



John Frame: I know of no presuppositionalist who fails to present Jesus as a historical figure who taught, worked miracles, and rose from the dead. Nor do I understand the contrast you draw between “the apostolic case” and the “general tenets of Christian belief.” We can agree that the gospel focuses on what Jesus said and did, and particularly his death and resurrection. But in the present age, nobody should question the fact that we must also set forth the biblical world view: creator/creature, revelation, etc. Many people don’t understand the Gospel story, because they come at the facts with an unbiblical epistemology. Paul says that Jesus’ resurrection is validated by 500 people who witnessed the resurrection together. A powerful piece of evidence, surely. But when you tell people that today, some will reply, “ well, David Hume taught us that there is NO believable testimony about a supernatural event; because it is always more probable that an event has a natural explanation than a supernatural explanation.” At this point, the Christian must say something about Hume, or general epistemology. We must make sure that the evidence for Jesus must be understood on a biblical epistemology, not a Humean or deconstructionist one.   



Joseph Partain: What I mean by the difference between the “apostolic case” and "general tenets of Christian belief" is that there is a difference between making a case to the public specifically for Jesus of Nazareth as Lord (as Peter does in Acts 2) and convincing that public to accept Christian or biblical presuppositions (doctrines related to creation, the Fall, redemption, etc.) as a precondition for knowing things in general and ultimately for knowing Jesus is Lord in particular. What one sees in Acts is that people were first convinced by the case that Jesus is Lord (again, as in Acts 2:14-36) and then, having received Christ, they devoted themselves to the apostolic teaching (as in Acts 2:42). In that way, the people of God gradually grew in their understanding (2 Peter 3:18) so as to have truly Christian or biblical presuppositions. Presuppositionalists put the cart before the horse.



3.  Presuppositionalism adopts a coherence rather than correspondence account of truth which is assumed in Scripture and by our God-given, common sense.



John Frame: Scripture and common sense do not accept a “correspondence account of truth” as opposed to a coherence or pragmatic theory. Scripture and common sense don’t endorse theories; rather they provide part of the basis for theories. The correspondence theory is one attempt to formulate the way we know things, but it is philosophically controversial. In my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (hence DKG) I argue that correspondence, coherence, and pragmatics, in their best form, are not incompatible with one another, and, indeed, reduce to one another. We cannot tell what our ideas “correspond” to unless we have a system of ideas that deals with various things including the concept of correspondence itself. But certainly the correspondence theory is right in saying that our ideas must align with the facts of the world.



Joseph Partain: “Truth” in our ordinary, dictionary usage and in Scripture (see, for example, Roger Nicole’s “The Biblical Concept of Truth” in Scripture and Truth, edited by Don Carson and John Woodbridge) is defined not as “what coheres with everything else we believe” (coherence theory) or as “what works” (pragmatic theory) but as “conformity [or correspondence] to fact [or reality]” (correspondence theory). The correspondence theory of truth is distinguished from coherence and pragmatic theories in its attempt to make interesting or philosophically viable what is otherwise a commonsense, naive, or non-philosophical understanding of truth. Coherence and pragmatic theories of truth, on the other hand, are in their pedigree philosophical through and through. As such, they are interesting and do not need philosophical treatment to be made so. In addition, these theories originated, significantly, because of a prior rejection (or as alternatives) to correspondence. They assume, contrary to a correspondence account, that we cannot have direct and verifiable knowledge of reality. That is, if correspondence as an understanding of truth is “controversial” (as you say), the controversy comes not from correspondence itself — that is, from what most people have always believed about truth — but from philosophical skepticism (such as what is behind coherence and pragmatic theories of truth). As Bishop Berkeley says, “We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.” Most of us all the time and the rest of us most of the time believe the air for truth is clear and the seeing is fine.



Now to focus for a moment specifically on correspondence and coherence: it isn’t that there are no coherence or pragmatic aspects to truth in a correspondence account, nor that there are no correspondence or pragmatic aspects to truth in a coherence account. However, the way one discusses these two theories of truth may well differ according to whether one has a correspondence or coherence understanding of truth. (It is apparent, for instance, that this answer to problem #3 derives from coherence: “We cannot tell what our ideas ‘correspond’ to unless we have a system of ideas that deals with various things including the concept of correspondence itself.”) With that said, there is still life outside the philosopher’s shade, as Hume reminds us. This is where everyone (including all but the most fanatical skeptic) lives and must live, regardless of their theory of truth. This is where truth conforms to facts or reality. It’s where we say this is true and that is false. It’s where the Bible gets written, and Jesus is attested as the Messiah. And, finally, it explains Peter’s lawyer-like approach in Acts 2 to presenting evidences for the truth, again, that Jesus is Lord to people who didn’t have biblical or Christian presuppositions. In conclusion, therefore, it is important to recognize that a correspondence understanding of truth has both a pre-theoretical and theoretical status, and that even in its theoretical status what is being philosophically justified is the same thing: the every day, common sense definition of truth as "conformity to fact or reality."



As for your statement that Scripture does not endorse theories, I believe we would agree that Scripture does not have to have a theory of history to have an account of history which says something significant about its nature. The same is true of a theory of ethics or philosophy of religion. Admittedly, the Bible doesn't approach its subject matter the way the philosophers do who generally begin and end with Man and human experience. (Van Til's major and righteous complaint against philosophy.) However, if one were to argue that since Scripture offers nothing theoretical as history, ethics, and religion, it must be subject to the problems and directions of philosophy in those areas — fill the gap in that sense — we would agree, I think, that such a person fails to fully honor the primacy or authority of Scripture as truth or knowledge. That is, whatever philosophy does at the conceptual level in these fields does not give it authority or precedence over Scripture, because Scripture doesn't handle its subject matter as the philosophers do. Accordingly, to claim (as you do) that Scripture does not have a correspondence account of truth implies that Scripture reveals truth's content but not truth's concept (as if the concept of a thing does not hold considerable power over the status and shape of its content). And, it seems that, as you view things, this lack opens the way for philosophy to step forward and provide its various theoretical proposals for truth conceptually. With such a supplementation, we get the result of a hybrid of Christianity and philosophy identified in my problems #4 and #5. However, what I said about history is also true of truth itself: Scripture does not have to have a theory of truth to have an account or definition of truth which says something significant about its nature. Moreover, just as we would not bend to a philosophy of religion that is looking for some common denominator among religions to determine what religion is, why would we bend to a philosophy of truth that begins and ends with the human mind as if the fear of God is a non-factor? Now I know that Van Tilian presuppositionalism, aware of the problem of this man-centeredness, approaches an idealistic, mind-dependent knowledge of reality (what one finds among the most famous modern philosophers), surgically removes the human aspect of that dependence, and replaces such with the mind of the Christ (known through Scripture and a regenerate heart). But the problem is that knowledge never has been nor will be mind-dependent to the extent that Descartes, Kant, and other modern philosophers in the epistemological idealist camp thought. Furthermore, by remedying a wrong problem with a right solution in this manner, Van Til created something that Scripture doesn't recognize: the denial that the unregenerate have knowledge at all or have a common basis with the regenerate for truth which includes the role of evidences and facts to establish that truth.  








4. Presuppositionalism is a relatively new, twentieth-century doctrine, philosophical in nature and unknown to the apostles and prophets through whom God gave us the Scriptures.



John Frame: The apostles and prophets were not philosophers, so they did not develop philosophical theories of knowledge. But of course later theological reflection legitimately tries to analyze and apply the implications of what the apostles and prophets taught. So theologians talk about the “Trinity,” though you will not find that term in the Bible. The question is whether the idea of the Trinity is consistent with what the Bible teaches and whether it helps us in understanding the Father, Son, and Spirit. Same with epistemological theories. The Bible doesn’t mention presuppositions, let alone presuppositionalism, but many of us have made the case that presuppositionalism is helpful in formulating what is implicit in the biblical doctrine, e.g. of revelation.



Joseph Partain: Why weren’t the apostles and prophets philosophers? Why didn’t they at least make some effort to integrate the ideas of the philosophers with what God had revealed in Scripture? A historical review of Western philosophy clearly shows that modern and postmodern ideas today — even if more advanced — are quite similar to ideas that go back to the ancient Greek thinkers, such as, Plato, Pyrrho, Protagorus, and the Sophists. These ideas would have been available to educated Jews in the time of Jesus and his apostles. Paul certainly would have been familiar with such. Why did Jesus and the apostles ignore the philosophers, except when having to deal with their errors? Is it not because they believed Scripture (or special revelation) was sufficient for their faith and practice? What am I saying? There was enough in the philosophical tradition in the days of the apostles and prophets for them to have devised a quite similar doctrine to presuppositionalism for apologetics in their time. Yet they didn’t. One can’t even imagine the apostles and prophets directing the church to consider what the philosophers are saying on this or that matter. Surely what they didn’t do in that respect should carry more weight with us today.

The more troubling aspect of this recognition that "the apostles and prophets were not philosophers" is an implication that these men weren't as sophisticated about truth as they could have been had they been philosophers. And when a presuppositionalist considers that Peter appealed to common evidences and facts in Acts 2, would this not seem to indicate that he didn't know the presuppositional nature of truth? And wouldn't Peter's confident use of evidence and reason in that same sermon qualify him as a "modernist" (as presuppositionalists say of one who makes such an appeal)?  

As for comparing presuppositionalism with the doctrine of the Trinity: presuppositionalism (as reflecting a coherence view of truth) is simply not in the Bible the way the doctrine of the Trinity is. The doctrine of the Trinity identifies and accounts for what is there in many places of Scripture. Presuppositionalism, on the other hand, first, denies in Scripture the presence of a common sense notion of truth as what corresponds to reality (see my response under problem #3 above), and, second, imports its own alien philosophical idea into Scripture, namely, that we cannot know reality directly due to finitude and/or sin and must have biblical or Christian presuppositions to have facts, truth, or knowledge in general.



5. Presuppositionalism, as a doctrinal mixture of philosophy and Christian Reformed theology, violates a cardinal principle which is perhaps most distinctive to that theology, namely, sola Scriptura (or Scripture alone as the basis for our faith and practice). 



John Frame: Presuppositionalism seeks to show precisely why and how we must base our teaching on Scripture alone. You may prefer “correspondence” or “evidentialism” or “Classical apologetics.” But those systems are no less philosophical than presuppositionalism, and they are no less controversial. All of them go beyond Scripture in the LANGUAGE they use. All of them seek to defend sola Scriptura. What presuppositionalism says about sola Scriptura is that we should develop our doctrines in a way that renounces autonomy and recognizes only Scripture as the foundation of human thinking.



Joseph Partain: To clarify, problem #5 is speaking of the derivation or composition of presuppositionalism — not the role presuppositionalism assigns to Scripture in relation to knowledge. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms rightly defines presuppositionalism as "a philosophical approach to theology." Without philosophy (particularly Van Til's Reformed and interpretive appropriation of epistemological idealism) presuppositionalism would not exist. It is in that sense presuppositionalism violates sola Scriptura. As for the claim, "presuppositionalism seeks to show precisely why and how we must base our teaching on Scripture alone,"  presuppositionalism may seem to honor Scripture in that way but there is still a problem: Presuppositionalism teaches what Scripture itself does not, namely, that without Scripture one lacks “the foundation of human thinking.” Consequently, presuppositionalism simply goes too far. It exaggerates the Bible’s own claim as truth. There is a significant difference between the claim that Scripture is able to make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15), and the claim that without Scripture we have no basis to know anything.   



6.  Presuppositionalism boldly recasts what the Bible says is fundamentally a problem of sin as a problem of knowing.



John Frame: No. Sin affects every area of human life, including knowing. The fall affected the thought of Adam and Eve, not just their actions. Evil actions, indeed, flowed from evil thoughts. So Paul says that sinful man “represses the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1). The Gospel reorients both our thoughts and our actions to serve Jesus as Lord.



Joseph Partain: Again, my explanation of this problem clarifies what I mean. I did not deny that sin affects the mind, nor would I hesitate to affirm that “the Gospel reorients both our thoughts and our actions to serve Jesus as Lord.” Rather, I said Romans 1-3 presents the universal problem of mankind not as a problem of knowing or that people cannot know things in general. Paul says nothing about how people have the wrong presuppositions, and, therefore, have no basis for rational thought. Rather, he declares that all are under sin. The Law, Paul says, was given to impart the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). If one follows Paul’s argument closely, one observes that he is calling attention not to what people can’t know due to their wrong presuppositions but to what indeed they do know, namely, that they have not kept the Law. Whether it is the knowledge implied in the conscience of a Gentile (Romans 2:1-16) or a Jew needing to confess the knowledge that having the Law hasn’t made him any less a sinner than the Gentiles (Romans 2:17-29), Paul is concerned not with epistemology (again, what people need to know anything at all) but soteriology (what people who know they are sinners need to be saved).  This shift from soteriology to epistemology is particularly evident in Van Til’s expression: “we are born again unto knowledge.” However, the gospel was not given by the Lord to be an answer to a problem for knowing raised by the misguided, mind-centered knowing of certain modern philosophers.



7.   Presuppositionalism claims that apart from regeneration in Christ and the Scriptures people cannot know or convey truth truly or objectively.



John Frame: Rom. 1 tells us that non-believers know God clearly from the things he has made. So in fact they CAN know truth truly and objectively. So Jesus commends the teaching of the Pharisees, telling us to believe what they say, but not to do what they do. The problem is not so much with their knowledge as with what they do with it. Paul says that these nonbelievers “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” So that actually their thinking is a mess. Sometimes the truth they know bubbles up, and they admit it; other times they deny what they know deep in their hearts. Only regeneration in Christ and the Scriptures can restrain this suppression of the truth.



Joseph Partain: If unbelievers or the unregenerate “CAN know truth truly and objectively,” it would seem that (1) neither finitude nor the effects of sin on the mind keep them from knowing things in general; (2) they can know things that may not fit their presuppositions (that knowledge is not entirely presuppositional); and, hence (3), they could be persuaded (for instance) by the argumentative case Peter is making in Acts 2 — based on evidence and reason — that Jesus is Lord. That is, if they can know truth “truly and objectively,” would that not mean that there is, at least, some common or neutral ground for truth or facts between a believer and unbeliever? If that is so, presuppositionalism is no longer presuppositionalism. It is just a commonplace, though helpful, insight that our presuppositions tend to influence (not wholly determine) what we know.  

8.  Presuppositionalism weakens by implication the church's public stance for truth.


John Frame: On the “public stance,” see my answer to question one. Since the events of salvation were public events, the apostles proclaimed them in public. We should do the same today, and no presuppositionalist denies this.



Joseph Partain: Since I respond to this answer about the “public” nature of truth under problem #1, I will elaborate a bit on this problem itself. If due to an acceptance of presuppositionalism God’s people believe that unbelievers don’t have the presuppositions necessary to know truth, then there will be an understandable or logical tendency to be silent on matters like abortion or same-sex marriage or other evils in society. To be sure, as the church, we are not here to condemn the world. Our mission is to bring to our world the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ who died for our sins. Our mission is to love people into the kingdom. However, love includes standing up for the truth and calling things what they are as God sees them or as clearly set forth in Scripture. This includes defending truth when it is under assault. On the other hand, if one is convinced that unbelievers don’t even have a basis for rational thought — if they believe that truth is relative to one’s presuppositions — then what sense would there be in speaking out publicly on issues like those just mentioned?

9.  Presuppositionalism indirectly confirms the relativism of our age by affirming that truth is relative to Christian presuppositions.



John Frame: Not true. Presuppositionalism emphasizes strongly that the Gospel is objective. Now of course, when someone comes to the Gospel with ungodly presuppositions, he can make it look bad. In that situation (as in the case of Hume, question 2 above) we insist that the objective truth must be understood by the objectively true biblical epistemology. God has revealed in history who Jesus is and what he has done. He has also revealed (objectively) how we should think about it. It is not very helpful; to say that truth is “relative to Christian presuppositions,” though with sufficient analysis that statement can be affirmed. Better to say that truth is objectively fixed in the mind of God, and that we must believe it as God has revealed it to us.



Joseph Partain: I did not say there is no claim of objective truth for the gospel in a presuppositional (or coherence) approach to the truth. But what it claims as objective, however strong, is only as strong as an internal or subjective coherence can bring to a belief system. A correspondence view (whether non-philosophical or philosophical), on the other hand, is stronger in its objectivity as a claim for truth, because it holds that truth is “out there” and reliably knowable for everyone. Of course, a coherence approach denies there is any such objectivity on those terms, but, I think, one who embraces that theory would have to admit, nevertheless, that if there were, it would offer a stronger objectivity than a coherence account of truth. It is also worth noting, here, that when I claim that presuppositionalism holds that “truth is relative to Christian presuppositions,” the answer, though qualified, ultimately comes back: “with sufficient analysis that statement can be affirmed.” Hence, if “sufficient analysis” is done such that this claim holds true, then what I state about how presuppositionalism indirectly supports the relativism of our age would seem also to hold true. So, as I’ve said elsewhere in these posts, when an unbeliever who already believes that truth is relative says “no thank you” to a presuppositionalist’s proposal that truth is relative to a Christian worldview, they will walk away from that conversation all the more confirmed in their relativism. What they need to hear, on the other hand, is that there is objective truth that everyone can know and on that basis God has made a case for the verdict that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord.  

10. Presuppositionalism burdens uneducated (and even educated) persons in the church both here in America and throughout the world with obscure problems about knowledge or truth that they are in no position to understand or evaluate.



John Frame: Presuppositionalism is no less philosophical or technical than any other epistemology. It raises no problems that rationalism, empiricism, correspondence, coherence, pragmatism don’t also raise. It just answers those questions differently. It does not require uneducated people to study philosophy. It only points out that anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus must apply his lordship to all areas of his life. If you are a telephone lineman, you should do that to the glory of God. If you are a homemaker, the same. If you are a philosopher, then you should seek to do that to God’s glory. But there is no reason why everyone must be a philosopher, any more than that everyone should be a homemaker.



Joseph Partain: My explanation of problem #10 clarifies what I mean. First, as I explained under problem #3, the common sense understanding of truth one finds in every day life and Scripture itself is not in itself, strictly speaking, an epistemology. From that standpoint, it is not only less philosophical or technical than other epistemologies, it is, indeed, not philosophical or technical at all. When a witness is sworn in to tell the truth under a court room proceeding, it isn’t necessary to ask the witness what epistemology he supports. We know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. Now if one were to ask that witness to define “presuppositionalism” or a “coherence theory of truth,” it would be a different matter. A common sense view of truth is mankind’s default understanding of truth. It requires no philosophical justification. Consequently, to claim that all approaches to truth are equally philosophical, controversial, or technical is to speak from an incomplete and thus distorted account of our experience of knowing. Or: it is to speak from within the whirl of dust the philosophers have raised, as if there were no clear air anywhere. Second, problem #10 is not settled by a vocational appeal, for instance, whether one is called to be a homemaker or a philosopher. The point is that the homemaker and lineman are having to deal with these things, particularly, if they are learning from their well meaning, presuppositionalist pastor that their unbelieving neighbors don’t have a basis for rational thought. Or they are taught that there are no “neutral facts” — no common, objective ground for truth between them and their unbelieving neighbors. Or that truth is relative to one’s presuppositions or perspective. If they aimed to be noble as the Bereans, where would they go as they are searching the Scriptures to see if these things are so? (I am thinking, in particular here, of the possible influence of presuppositionalism over the rapidly growing church in Africa, China, South America, etc.)