Sunday, February 9, 2014

Richard Howe's Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism: Part 1 of 2


Howe begins his remarks by claiming that Van Til denied any intellectual common ground between the believer and the unbeliever. Supposedly, Van Til believed that to assume such common ground, de facto denies the God of Christianity. However, in his project on The Defense of the Faith, Van Til wrote, “Only by this finding the point of contact in man’s sense of deity that lies underneath his own conception of self-consciousness as ultimate can we be both true to Scripture and effective in reasoning with the natural man. Man, knowing God, refuses to keep God in remembrance (Rom. 1:28).”[1] 

Clearly, Van Til thought there was a point of contact in which we can not only reason with the unbeliever, but also reason effectively with him. Greg Bahnsen, in addressing this misunderstanding of presuppositionalism said, “All men have in common the world created by God, controlled by God, and constantly revealing God. In this case, any area of life or any fact can be used as a point of contact. The denial of neutrality secures, rather than destroys, commonality.”[2] 

This is simply reminding us of what Paul said nearly two-thousand years ago to the Roman Church; “all men know God.” All men willingly pervert the truth of God that they clearly possess. All men are culpable for the knowledge of God they have been given. In other words, the knowledge that God exists is inescapable. There is no need to try to prove to anyone that God exists because God has already proven it to every man. It is indelibly stamped upon the conscience of man. In addition, man has been wired to see it everywhere he turns in creation. Paul said that God is so clearly seen by the non-Christian that they have no apologetic for their non-Christian worldview. This is the common ground upon which both the believer and the unbeliever stand. However, the unbeliever’s willful suppression of this knowledge clearly demonstrates that while the ground is common, it is far from neutral. It is one thing to stand upon the same ground, but quite another to admit that we stand upon the same ground. It is one thing to presuppose God and yet altogether another thing to admit such presuppositions. I may deny that I believe in the laws of mathematics while offering 8 reasons for why I do so. This is a fine, but significant distinction that Howe fails to acknowledge in his critique.

Transcendental Argument for God or Logic?

First, Howe contends that Van Til and Bahnsen offer more of a transcendental argument for the necessity and unavoidability of the laws of logic itself rather than a transcendental argument for the necessity and unavoidability of Trinitarian theism. Howe then points out the unavoidable use of logic. He argues that you have to use logic in order to refute it and that is simply not possible. Hence, logic is inescapable. Howe goes on to say that while it is clear to him how logic is transcendentally necessary, it is not clear to him how God is transcendentally necessary. Howe pointedly remarks that it is not clear to him how God is transcendentally necessary in order for there to be an argument against God.

The presuppositional claim is that without God, human experience, to include the laws of logic would be unintelligible. To claim that God is the necessary precondition for intelligibility is to claim that God must be posited in order to make sense of any experience whatsoever. In order for the laws of logic to have any meaning of any kind, God necessarily exists. In other words, Howe fails to understand that God is the necessary precondition for the laws of logic. Rather than use the laws of logic to prove God’s existence, presuppositionalism seeks to show that God is the reason that the laws of logic work in the first place. The point that presuppositionalism drives home is simply that within their own worldview, a universe of chance, of autonomous human reason, the unbeliever cannot give an account for the laws of logic. The particular and the general have no logical connection under such conditions. How could anything be transcendentally necessary unless there is God who is Himself transcendentally necessary? As Michael Butler points out, TAG starts with human experience; such things as science, love, rationality and moral duties. It then asserts that the existence of the Christian God is the necessary precondition of such experiences. Finally, it proves this indirectly by demonstrating the impossibility of the contrary.[3] We may conclude then that when Howe states that he has yet to encounter where Van Til or Bahnsen make this argument, that it demonstrates he is not as conversant in their respective materials as he thinks he is.

Van Til explains: “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.”[4] The reason that Howe can see the transcendental necessity of logic but not God is telling. Perhaps Howe relies more on human logic to derive his philosophy than he does on the existence of God. Because God cannot be proved in the manner in which classical apologists claim, it follows that any god that is proved by this method is a god who is something other than the self-contained ontological trinity of Scripture.[5] And that god is not God. The God we know is the self-contained ontological trinity of Scripture. This is the God that gives us the reason for the hope that is in us. To be sure, the classical two-step approach is a derivative of Aristotle rather than Paul, or John, or Peter. Scripture is entirely unaware of such reasoning.

Howe then posits that the presuppositional approach confuses the order of being with the order of knowing. Van Til and Bahnsen have apparently confused ontological necessity with epistemology. Howe uses the city of Atlanta and a map of Atlanta as an analogy to drive home his point. He says, “The presuppositionalist is wrong to think that if an argument leads one to a belief in the existence of God, this God cannot be the God of Christianity.”[6] This is precisely the very question in dispute. Howe talks about the priority of epistemology and metaphysics when what he should be considering is the divine revelation of Romans one, which denies that which his philosophy wants to grant. To be specific, Howe thinks that the sinful mind can rightly read the spiritual map that leads to a right belief in the triune God. Paul categorically denies this position in Romans 1, 8, and 1 Cor. 2:14. Moreover, while there may be small similarities between the existence of God and knowing how to get to God and the existence of the city of Atlanta and knowing how to get to Atlanta, the differences for purposes of this conversation are significant. God is not a physical entity, limited by space and time. People once knew how to get from one place to another prior to the existence of maps. Most people in fact, can find Atlanta without a map. In addition, the epistemic authority of the Christian is Scripture and Scripture says that men do not need to be informed about how to find the belief that God exists because God has built such belief in them via the sensus divinitatis. Howe’s analogy that he borrowed from Packer turns out to be a false analogy in the end.

Howe states, “Presuppositionalists mistakenly assume that to have the argument first in the order of knowing is to tacitly deny that God is first in the order of being.” That is not at all why presuppositionalists argue in the manner in which they do. I think what Van Til and Bahnsen are saying is this: “The anti-theistic conception of the self-contradictory presupposes the theistic conception of the self-contradictory for its operation.” The beauty of the transcendental argument is that if framed properly, it is not defeasible. The elements required to argue for the non-existence of God necessarily presuppose His existence. Belief of any kind presupposes God. Howe gave a good demonstration of this when he showed the transcendental necessity of logic. Howe does not seem to realize that if God cannot be shown to be transcendentally necessary, then Christian theism cannot be proven true. The problem in Howe’s approach and the reason for his view on this point is his view that we can only reach degrees of probability in our argument for God.

Part 2 to follow in a couple of days.

[1]. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1955), 95.
[2]. Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 43.
[3]. Michael R. Butler, “The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence.”
[4]. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 2.
[5]. Ibid. (paraphrase)
[6]. Richard Howe, Some Brief Critical Thoughts on Presuppositionalism.

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