Answering a Cranky Evidentialist
….And I don’t mean William Lane Craig or Norman Geisler.
Back in 2009, I had occasion to briefly interact with a pastor who was a self-described “evidentialist Calvinist.” We exchanged words on the subject of apologetic methodology in the combox under a post entitled, The Problem with The Evidentialist Approach to Apologetics.
My detractor had a strong dislike for presuppositionalism in general, and Van Til specifically. He even put up an article at his personal blog called something like, “Van Til Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About,” if memory serves. I tried looking for it to give it a link, but the post had been removed for one reason or another.
Anyhow, in the combox exchange, the evidentialist left a number of bullet points attempting to challenge my view of apologetic methodology. I kept a copy of the comments in a file labeled “possible blog articles” with the intention of writing a post or two from them, but life and work distracted me, and I forgot about them. I recently came across them again and I thought it may be instructional to offer my thoughts.
I’ll try to organize the material to flow a bit better than the typical back-and-forth in a combox.
1. “Autonomous” is nothing but a pejorative buzzword.
It would be helpful if our detractor would flesh this comment out more. How exactly is “autonomous” a “buzzword?” Does he mean to say it is a fairly recent addition to the Reformed vocabulary? Or that the concept of “autonomous” as it relates to man’s reasoning is unsubstantiated in Scripture?
If he means that “autonomous” is an unbiblical word, only originating with presuppositionalists, this is a rather problematic assertion. It’s like saying the word “Trinity” is unbiblical because it is nowhere found in the pages of Scripture and had its coinage in the writings of early apologists like Justin Martyr and Tertullian.
When presuppositionalists speak of “autonomous,” they have in mind the idea of sinners who are not submitted to the authority of God as revealed in Scripture. “Autonomous” has in mind what Paul describes as those “lofty and high things that exalts itself against the knowledge of God” and those thoughts that “are not captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Individuals Paul also describes as being “futile in their thoughts” (Romans 1:21) and who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (vs. 18). This is reasoning originating from the sinful heart of men that attempts to rationalize man’s rebellion against their Creator.
2. “Autonomous” reasoning is all God gave us, to receive and evaluate information. There ain’t anything else.
Again, definitions would be helpful. “Autonomous” is not to be equated with the ability to receive and evaluate information; at least the concept of “autonomous” as defined by presuppositionalists. We are not talking about the manner in which a person evaluates chemical reactions, for instance. We are speaking about a person who attempts to live life apart from the “fear of the LORD” as Proverbs describes it.
3. If God is above logic, as Van Til claimed, then we can’t know anything about God. This principle is the pathway to neo-orthodoxy and spiritual skepticism.
I am assuming my evidentialist friend here has read what Van Til has taught on the subject? Be that as it may, I am not sure where he is getting this claim from Van Til. As I understand what Van Til taught about God and logic, at least according to John Frame as he reports in his book on Van Til’s theology, he believed the foundation of logic was to be the nature of God, meaning logic doesn’t operate independently of God. In this sense, one could say God is “above” logic, because the reason the world is “logical” has to do with God.
4. If you have to understand everything (the eternal context) in order to understand any one thing (brute facts), then none of us know anything. Which is a foolish claim.
I think what he is missing is how presuppositionalists insist that true knowledge begins with a fear of the LORD. This isn’t a “foolish claim” but a biblical one, for instance, Proverbs 1:7; 9:10. How exactly does my evidentialist detractor understanding those passages?
5. If Christians and non-Christians share nothing in common epistemologically, then we are incapable of reasoning with each other, and are forced to just yell louder and more assertively at people. And add pejorative adjectives like the word “brute” in front of innocent words like “facts.”
I wonder what sort of “presuppositionalists” this pastor has spoken with. Perhaps there are muddled presuppositionalists he has encountered, but I personally can think of none who would argue in such a fashion as to say Christians and non-Christians share nothing in common epistemologically. The issue is not that they fail to see the world logically, for example. It is that they live inconsistently to what they believe by suppressing those truths when it comes to ultimate issues, like the submission to God as their sovereign authority.
6. The argument that presupposing the Christian worldview makes everything else intelligible is… an argument based on evidence. It’s called “the argument from coherence.” Like C.S. Lewis’ “I believe in the sun because by the sun I see everything else.”
As I understand “the argument from coherence” it is merely saying that one’s worldview, or philosophy of life, should be cohesive and consistent as a whole. In other words, portions of your thinking aren’t detached and irrational to the rest of what you may advocate.
Of course such cohesiveness is based on “evidence,” no one is denying such a thing. But it is “evidenced” upon the conclusions of one’s presuppositions. The fact that one can see everything presupposes the luminosity of light that the sun generates.
7. The Bible nowhere claims to be self-attesting. Van Til made that up.
That’s a rather ignorant assertion if this guy genuinely believes it. The idea of the Bible being “self-attesting, or better, “having self-authenticating qualities,” is an historic, Protestant Reformed doctrine. For example, the WCF states in chapter 1:iv,
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
Also, consider the concluding sentence of the next point, 1:v, which says,
…our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
You’ll note with 1:iv, the writers state that the authority of Holy Scripture is not dependent upon the “testimony of any man or church.” You can read there also, “established by extra-biblical evidence;” certainly “extra-biblical evidence acting as an authority over Scripture.” Rather, Scripture is the Word of God because it is wholly from God as it claims. Other theologians have historically affirmed this position, including Calvin, Bavinck, and Warfield, all who pretty much pre-date Van Til.
8. Nothing in 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that the Scripture is self-attesting. 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that the Scripture is divinely inspired. Is that what you mean by self-attesting … so do all the other major religious texts in the world.
This is a rather surprising statement. The very doctrine of inspiration implies self-authentication, because inspiration is a work of God. The fact that God is the inspirer of Scripture, which is His revelation, means its veracity and integrity is intricately woven to His character. Scripture’s authority derives from God’s authority. As the writer of Hebrews notes, For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, (Hebrews 6:13).
Additionally, major religious texts do not necessarily claim this kind of inspiration. They may claim an uniqueness to a particular guru, but nothing like the self-disclosed God revealed in Scripture. The closest competitors, like the Qu’ran, and I can maybe add the Book of Mormon also, derive their authority from the Old and New Testaments, or previously disclosed revelation. If those books deviate from the consistency of the previous revelation or Scripture, which both the Qu’ran and the Book of Mormon do so rather radically, those book are to be counted as suspect if not outright fraudulent.
9. The noetic effects of sin have no bearing on the fundamentals of presuppositionalism…
The idea of the noetic effects of the fall implies that all men, due to them being separated from God, have their reasoning impacted by that fall also. Contrary to what my evidentialist detractor argues, the noetic effects of the fall go beyond just causing men to be blinded to the Gospel message. They are not merely limited to understanding and accepting spiritual things.
Rather, the fall has impacted all of man’s reasoning abilities in much broader areas. Once again for example, what Paul identifies as “suppressing the truth.” If one is already presupposed to anti-supernatural materialism and scientism as the means of all knowledge, any “evidence” or “testimony” or “facts” that directly challenge those presuppositions will be explained away in light of those presuppositions – or denied outright in some cases.
This is why appeals to evidence alone are not sufficient to convince men hostile to God about the truthfulness of Christianity. All the evidence will be interpreted according to philosophical axioms which spin the conclusions one makes about that evidence.
10. If evidentialism is so bad, why does God use it in Scripture?
I certainly agree God uses evidence in Scripture. I wouldn’t deny it for a moment. For example, in Luke 2, after the angels pronounce the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds, they say to one another, “Let’s go see if this is true.” They wanted evidence, and the angel told them where they could find it.
I as a presuppositionalist am not opposed to the use of evidence. I just recognize that in all the examples of evidence used in Scripture, God is divinely telling us what the evidence means. The cross was merely an instrument of torture and death utilized by the Roman government. God, however, puts a specific interpretation on that cross that now has an entirely new emphasis.
11. Brute facts are the only facts available to anyone. Your knowledge of what I wrote, which controlled the occasion to which you replied, is 100% comprised of brute facts. You don't God's "big picture" in, around, and through my comment, nor do know it regarding yours, but here we are talking anyway. …
As I understand Van Til’s view of “brute facts,” he meant to say there are no “uninterpreted facts.” That being, all facts everywhere must be interpreted. One’s presuppositions then interpret those facts.
I am able to communicate with people because God is my creator and He created men to communicate not only with Him, but with each other. God is also not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), which can be extended to mean God is “logical” in all that He does. Communication implies some logical cohesiveness in the means of “communicating,” things like vocabulary, syntax, and grammar that allow people to understand each other.
12. … Jesus said, "Believe I'm the Son of God because I work miracles." God didn't give people philosophy lessons in Dutch Idealism before giving them proofs of His own identity. The point remains, one can't promote a philosophy of knowing that isn't taught in the Bible (whether explicitly, or by a necessity of logic, as the WCF says), and in fact is contradicted by the words and actions of God.
But here in the 21st century, no one has seen Jesus do miracles. We base our conviction that Jesus did miracles on the veracity of the testimony from eye-witnesses; a testimony that is revealed and preserved in Scripture. Our starting point begins with our faith in God’s truthful character and His ability to keep His word that He will preserve Scripture.
13. … Yes, the Bible does depend throughout on empirical verifications. If archaeologists ever find Jesus' skeleton (hypothetically speaking), then Christianity and the Bible aren't true. Correct?
My faith in the veracity of God’s Word is tied directly to what God has revealed of Himself as a Truth telling God. As I noted in my response to my evidentialist challenger,
All critics of Daniel said the book was false simply because chapter 5 mentioned Belshazzer as the king of Babylon. Anyone even remotely familiar with Babylonian history knew Nebonidus was the last king of Babylon. This discrepancy was not solved until it was found in the Nebonidus Chronicles, discovered around the late 1860s, that Nebonidus appointed his son, Belshazzer to be king in Babylon as a co-regent. So was Daniel true before that time, in other words, self-attesting?
Additionally, sensationalist glory hound, Simcha Jacobovici, claims to have found the Jesus family tomb including the bone box of Jesus. Discovery Channel ran a documentary on it. Has he proven the Bible to be an untruthful revelation? I think my cranky evidentialist would say no.