Presuppositional Apologetic Methodology & Natural Theology

presuppositionalism-vs-natural-theologyFollowers of Calvinist theology are prone to utilize the presuppositional apologetic methodology formulated by Cornelius Van Til and championed by Greg Bahnsen. An important element of this methodology is a strict adherence to the reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which states that the Bible is the final authority for the rule and faith of the Church.

The presuppositional methodology established by Van Til pushes this doctrinal claim further and argues that the only way we are able to justify our knowledge of the world, and any truth claim for that matter, is based on the revelation contained within the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. For example, on the Presuppositionalist view, we do not have justification for any knowledge of the created order until we read in the pages of scripture that God has indeed created the visible and invisible realities we find ourselves participating. On this view, we may “know” quite a lot of things about the surrounding reality, but we do not have justification until we come into contact with the written word of God. And because knowledge, on this view, is considered to be justified true belief, a person does not have knowledge until reality has been justified by encountering the words contained in Holy Scripture.

What seems to immediately follow from this view is a rejection of the Church’s historic use of natural theology to make rational arguments for the existence of God.

In my view, not only is the rejection of natural theology problematic, but also, this Calvinist theory of knowledge runs contrary to what is taught in the Sacred Pages of Scripture. In addition to the mistaken doctrine of Sola Scriptura, there is a peculiar misinterpretation of texts that seem to clearly support the use of natural theology to rationally demonstrate the existence and attributes of God apart from special revelation.

Here are some of the key passages I have in mind,

“For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if men were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is he who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their creator.” – Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; an the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” – Psalm 19

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” – Romans 1:19-20

The person doing natural theology would recognize that before these words were ever written, they were capable of gazing upon the wonder of the created order and readily acknowledge the comprehensive contingency surrounding them. The contingency of the natural world whets the aesthetic appetite of the intentionally rational intellect to further seek the Being which all created being participates. This phenomenological experience between the personal subject and divine object of faith, mediated through the gratuity of creation, is why the philosophy of Plato, for example, without access to divine revelation recognizes the very thing that the scriptures testify concerning created reality. Although ancient philosophers were without the written revelation of the Bible, they are able to properly identify that the natural order is not in and of itself independent of a supernatural agent. To be sure, without the revelation of God ancient philosophers continually fell into error, but the obviousness of natural theology as a branch of metaphysical investigations should be apparent, not only from history and scripture, but the necessary affirmation of Church tradition and magisterial teaching.

Those Presuppositionalists that would reject the necessary and proper use of natural theology for apologetic purposes seem to read the key passages of scripture highlighted above to mean that God can be known through creation only after such a truth claim has been found in the Bible. On the Presuppositionalist view, then, the justification required to know that reality is purely contingent and at every moment conserved by God is suspended until such truths are transcribed onto parchment by a prophet or Apostle, and all the relevant circumstances for the canonization of Scripture are met. Following this, justification must wait a bit longer until the Protestant canon of Scripture is created in order to compete with the Catholic canon of Scripture, which had been the authoritative collection for roughly 1,500 years.

So the rejection of natural theology and reason’s capacity to know God through creation is another mistake made by reformed presuppositionalists in an attempt to reduce apologetics to Sola Scriptura.


– Lucas G. Westman

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