Investigating Apologetic Methodology

Cornelius Van TilA topic that I am going to spend time discussing on this blog is apologetic methodology. The debate surrounding apologetic method is important because it involves how we communicate the Gospel in a culture of radical secularism, rampant unbelief, and moral relativism. The method I plan on arguing in favor of and utilizing in my apologetic endeavors will be associated with an attempt to unite an imaginative approach to the traditionalist classical method of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

In contrast to the method I will be proposing is Van Tillian Presuppositionalism. This method is popular among various reformed theological circles and reduces all apologetic endeavors to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Van Till says, “Rather than wedding Christianity to the philosophies of Aristotle and Kant, we must openly challenge the apostate philosophic constructions of men by which they seek to suppress the truth about God, themselves, and the world.”

He also says, “If it has to import some of its materials from the enemy, it cannot expect effectively to conquer the enemy. It is the Christian faith that alone has the truth; this should be its clam.”

While the Van Tillians might appropriately identify the problem of intellectual “neutrality” in these suggestions, what is being put forth as a coherent apologetic methodology is philosophically problematic. And it is worth noting that the recognition of the problem of intellectual “neutrality” is not an original methodological commitment. No traditionally informed Thomist would grant a realm of neutrality given the already recognized differences of metaphysical commitments between, for example, the organically interconnectedness of the A-T worldview and the mechanistically disjointed atheistic worldview.

First, Van Til violates his own standard due to the fact that his system associates the philosophical predisposition of German Idealism with a reformed theological vocabulary. Van Til’s apologetic is a mixture of Kantian transcendentalism, Hegelian holism, and some postmodernism mixed in for good measure. Methodologically speaking, presuppositionalism is far from a pristine Christianity successfully avoiding the incorporation of “materials of the enemy.” This is not to say that this is a weakness of the method, rather, it is identifying an inconsistency Van Til and his followers sweep under the rug. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with baptizing these particular philosophies in Christian truth, if such a baptism is possible. It is, however, wrong to chastise others for baptizing Aristotle, so to speak, while Van Til is sprinkling water over the head of Kant and Hegel.

Moreover, Van Til’s protege Greg Bahnsen, also violates this standard requirement of denying “apostate” philosophical influence. In a debate with R.C. Sproul, Bahnsen utilizes and then rejects Cartesian skepticism on the basis of Sola Scriptura. Bahnsen says that the only basis in which we can avoid the methodological doubt of our senses and our reasoning is the reformed theological doctrine of Sola Scriptura. When making this argument, however, he makes a crucial error. He forgets that the bible must pass through the faculties of sensory experience that are supposedly in doubt. So Bahnsen cannot doubt the reliability of sensory experience, and then get out of that doubt by appealing to sensory experience via reading the Bible. This is where Descartes’s argument is actually better than Bahnsen’s. Descartes appeals to the image of God to rescue him from his perpetual doubt and metaphysical solipsism. He says that because we have the idea of God in our mind, and that we are created to have this idea, we can know God exists. Also, because we can know God exists we know that He would not deceive us. Descartes concludes by saying that unless God exists we cannot be sure of anything. I am not arguing in favor of Cartesian methodology. I am merely pointing out the inconsistency in its usage by Bahnsen.

Van Tillian presuppositionalists think we should stay away from people like Aristotle because he was not a Christian, and thus his philosophical musings were mistaken (for how could a spiritually blind, dumb, and deaf person, discover truths about the physical world). But I think there is a double standard here. They are willing to draw from such philosophers when those arguments back the non-Christian into the corner. For example, they are willing to wield Humean skepticism with regard to induction to argue for Christianity, but if Aristotle can’t be trusted to get things right how can we trust Hume to raise a valid argument against the use of induction? For we are suggesting that Hume is saying something right about a point of view that is very significant to one’s overall worldview. Or if not this, we are saying that he is making the right inferential move. But why should we trust a pagan, according to Van Til, to make valid moves? Why should we expect them to notice those truths that eventually support Christianity? If Hume is blinded by sin, why doesn’t that affect his arguments pertaining to induction — arguments that have serious consequences for our knowledge of the world? I wonder if there is a consistent principle that they can use that would tell us when we can trust Hume.

One could say, “we can expect Hume to notice such truths but one shouldn’t expect him to recognize that they lead to Christianity.” But we could say precisely the same thing for Aristotle: “There is no reason to think Aristotle wouldn’t track truths about the pervasiveness of teleology in nature. We just shouldn’t expect him to see where that ultimately leads.” But that is not what they argue. They often expect us to dismiss Aristotle wholesale.

So the presuppositionalist must realize that there are philosophical traditions that comport with revealed truth. I maintain that this inconsistency is due to their adherence to the false doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and therefore a fallacious biblicism manifests itself in an effort to be reformed purists.


– Lucas G. Westman

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