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Presuppositionalism vs. Natural Theology: Part 1
June 23, 2013 John Bowling

Presuppositionalism vs. Natural Theology: Part 1

Posted in Forum Post

I wanted to weigh in on the recent Unbelievable? show on apologetic methodology.

Where I’m coming from: I hold to Reformed theology and consider myself presuppositional.

Caveat on where I’m coming from: There is, perhaps, a spectrum of presuppositionalism. On the far end are those who would probably say I’m not presuppositionalist. In fact they would probably say there is no spectrum of presuppositionalism. There is only consistent (them) and inconsistent (me) presuppositionalism, the latter not really being presuppositional properly speaking. I suspect this is the way most of the people of Choosing Hats would classify me. That’s fine and I’m willing to have a discussion on that if necessary (and time permits). I’m open to being shown wrong about my views on presuppositionalism. I have read several of Van Til’s books (and I have everything he’s written in my Logos library) and several of Bahnsen’s books, including his massive Van Til’s Apologetic. So if you are a presupper who thinks I’m inconsistent and want to leave me a comment it would be helpful to do more than just say “Dude, read Van Til or Bahnsen.”

Part 1: I haven’t listened to the entire show yet. I’ve only listened to about half of it. I imagine I’ll have more to say on later parts of the show and I’ll come back, Lord willing, and discuss other things as I have time.

What is the Natural Theology method of apologetics?: Mr. Jaros gives us his understanding of his method of apologetics:

“Natural theology, I would say, is looking at general revelation that God has given us and using arguments to persuade people that God exists. … What nature reveals to us, what reason reveals to us about the world and presenting a broad case before we get to special revelation.”

I respond: The first part of this definition (looking at GR that God has given us and using arguments to persuade people that God exists) does not exclude Presuppositionalism. See my below quote from Van Til for instance. The presuppositionalist claims that every fact of the universe as a piece of revelation points us to God. So, for instance, the famous presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen once came up with his toothpaste argument for God’s existence. In this sense, one might say that presuppositionalists actually have a much stronger sense of GR pointing to God’s existence than Evidentialists (encompassing classicalists, cumulative casers, etc). Dr. Oliphint makes a similar point later on.

The second part of this definition (“before we get to special revelation”) would, taken in certain senses, exclude people like Timothy and Lydia McGrew’s argument in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which Mr. Jaros identifies as being in the natural theology (evidentialist) tradition! So I would like some clarification on what it means to look at what nature reveals to us “before we get to special revelation.” Ultimately, I think the evidentialist or “natural theologian” will want to say that it is not really a temporal thing, such that we can’t start with some fact recorded in Scripture in the way Timothy and Lydia McGrew do in the BCNT, but rather an epistemic thing: *how* we treat the facts, say, recorded in Scripture. So the real issue would be one of (alleged) neutrality or *how* one handles special revelation and not so much *when* one handles special revelation.

Ability to Change Beliefs: This seems to be the dominant topic in the first part of the show. It’s set up as though this is the divide between presuppositionalism and what Mr. Jaros terms “natural theology.” Justin, the host, seems to take note of this as well and after going to a break he frames the discussion in terms of asking whether non-Christians have the capacity to rationally accept the existence of God without God giving them that ability in the first place. I think this is a mistake following from Mr. Jaros’ initial framing of the issue.

Mr. Jaros says,

“[Natural theology] deals with how we view the nature of man. [If] people have ability or not to understand these arguments and change beliefs. And based on my understanding that’s why I think there is value in giving positive arguments in favor of Christianity in the traditional, classical sense.”

I respond: It’s not really clear what ability to understand arguments and change beliefs has to do with it. Presuppositionalists believe that persons have the ability to understand arguments. So we can dismiss that as a distinguishing feature of natural theology.

What about one’s ability to change beliefs? Most presuppositionalists are Reformed. Being Reformed, they don’t think man has the ability, apart from God’s work, say, in regeneration, to change beliefs. But I’m not convinced right now that this is a part of *presuppositionalism* per se rather than Reformed theology. In other words, it is not a part of presuppositionalism that persons can’t change beliefs apart from a special act of God. (I fully realize that there are some presuppositionalists who would want to see Reformed theology and presuppositionalism as a total package deal such that one entails the other. Dr. Oliphint takes this position in interacting with Mr. Jaros. I’m just not convinced this is the case right now.)

And at any rate, it doesn’t seem that we need to understand this inability to change beliefs in a way that somehow divides Kurt’s natural theology view from presuppositionalism. For instance, suppose a Reformed non-presuppositionalist (e.g. Sproul) affirms both that (a) a special act of God is necessary for a person to change beliefs and that (b) God can and does use arguments from natural theology to change beliefs. Or suppose that a non-Reformed presuppositionalist affirms that (a) a special act of God is not necessary for a person to change beliefs and that (b) the nature of epistemology is such that a person’s beliefs usually  won’t change outside of a presuppositional framework.

Either way, I really don’t get why ability to change beliefs apart from divine intervention factors into it. I guess Mr. Jaros could say that this isn’t the sense of inability to change beliefs he has in mind. But then what is that sense and how is it relevant to a natural theology/presuppositional divide?

Mr. Jaros also says this understanding, which is apparently a uniquely natural theology understanding, is why he thinks “there is value in giving positive arguments in favor of Christianity in the traditional, classical sense.”

Here is what Cornelius Van Til (the founder of presuppositionalism) said:

“I see induction and analytical reasoning as part of one process of interpretation. I would therefore engage in historical apologetics. (I do not personally do a great deal of this because my colleagues in the other departments of the Seminary in which I teach are doing it better than I could do it.) Every bit of historical investigation, whether it be in the directly biblical field, archaeology, or in general history, is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without challenging the unbeliever’s philosophy of fact. A really fruitful historical apologetic argues that every fact is and must be such as proves the truth of the Christian position.” (A Christian Theory of Knowledge p. 293, <>)

Van Til and, hence, his brand of presuppositionalism, may have a problem with the way the classical method presents those facts or the epistemological context in which it couches the facts, but this doesn’t bar a presuppositionalist from seeing value in the facts and even in some of the ways in which the traditional, classical method has made use of them. A presuppositionalist might be able to appreciate, for instance, the way in which William Lane Craig has made use of facts like the beginning of the universe and the nature of causality/ontology to show how they point to God–while still having some criticisms about his arguments not going far enough or perhaps not being consistent or something like that.

Dr. Oliphint I think also follows Mr. Jaros in this mistake of framing the issue in terms of ability to believe apart from divine intervention. He says:

Would you preach to someone who has absolutely no capacity to even understand the terms or ideas that you’re communicating. Of course you wouldn’t. There is a capacity there, but the problem is that those who remain in their sins, unless the Lord changes them, will always twist and turn those truths of the gospel into something that, to them, is not believable–it really is unbelievable and incredible.

But nothing Dr. Oliphint says here is unique to presuppositionalism so far as I can see. Rather, this is simply Reformed theology and even a non-presuppositional reformed theologian like R. C. Sproul would affirm what Dr. Oliphint says. Again, I realize that some presuppositionalists would want to argue that Sproul just isn’t being consistent. Well if he is being inconsistent I don’t see how his inconsistency stems from *this point in particular* about inability to change beliefs apart from divine intervention. In other words, even if there is some essential between presuppositionalism and Reformed Theology, why think it is at this very point?

Ability to reason well: Justin, the host, asks Mr. Jaros:

Are you kind of assuming that they are, as a non-Christian, able to reason well enough to be able to rationally accept your premises and your argument and so on? …

I didn’t have time to listen beyond Mr. Jaros’ response here, so hopefully Dr. Oliphint got a chance to correct the misunderstanding that this question presupposes about presuppositionalism. But presuppositionalism does not claim that unbelievers aren’t able to reason well enough to rationally accept premises for God’s existence. Presuppositionalism is very clear that the unbeliever’s problem is at base a moral one and not an intellectual one. Van Til used to use the analogy of a table saw. The table saw represented the intellect. Slabs of wood represented facts. The angle of the saw represented presuppositions. Unbelievers, said Van Til, were often much sharper than Christians and could often cut the facts better, in a sense. So in this sense unbelievers do not lack an ability to reason well enough to accept premises and arguments. It’s not that unbelievers are in this way stupid. Justin’s question sets up a false implication for presuppositionalism at this point. But unbelievers are like a table saw set at the wrong angle. No matter what facts you fed them, and no matter how sharp their blade, they would cut the facts wrong. This isn’t because they lack the rational sharpness to accept premises and arguments, it is, in a sense, because they lack the proper presuppositions to cut the wood at the right angles.

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