As promised, though much later than intended, this post represents Part I in a series concerning presuppositional apologetics as employed by Christian theologians. In this installment I shall focus on the claim made by John M. Frame in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God* that the basic reasoning behind the presuppositional approach is not a circular argument and is a valid argumentation form. By way of this treatment I shall also introduce why Frame and other such apologists believe this form of argumentation appears illogical to non-Christians.
What is ‘Apologetics’?
According to Frame, one of the leading Calvinist theologians, apologetics of any type focuses primarily on one of three approaches: proof, defense, and offense, though any complete apologetics will include all three. In the first, the defender of faith attempts to offer proof in support of her position which might persuade the interlocutor to concede a key point or accept a theory on faith altogether. In the second, the defender of faith seeks merely to provide a reasoned account for why she is justified, through reason or faith, in holding a given position or belief. Finally, a defender of faith assuming an offensive approach attempts to actively discredit contrary evidence in order to strengthen the case for the given claim.
Regardless of the approach, it is important to note that Frame views the purpose of apologetics as twofold; to at once offer a public recognition of Christ as the son of God and the Christian faith, as well as to offer “a reason for [Christian] hope.” What I would like to discuss here is one of the prominent theories, especially among Presbyterian forms of Christianity, viz. ‘Presuppositional Apologetics.’ This form of apologetics has gained notoriety after the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson were published and also featured in the film Collision: Hitchens vs. Wilson.
Presuppositionalism might best be described as biting the apologetics bullet. In this form of apologetics, the defender attempts to ‘even the playing field’ by way of bypassing arguments stemming from literary/textual criticism, logical issues in theology, or questions of evidentiary or historical nature. This is accomplished in a two-fold manner. First, as the name entails, the apologist uses Scripture as the measure by which all evidences and arguments must be evaluated, even (and especially, it seems) at the cost of sound argumentation and cogent lines of reasoning. Frame, and by extension any presuppositionalist, claims that all philosophies presuppose the primacy of one element or another, be it reason or existential experience, etc. This is the second means by which presuppositional apologetics seeks to undercut common methods of rational discourse, i.e. by alleging that even a rationalist is presupposing some measure or another. This would not necessarily be problematic, except that it is assumed all presuppositions are inherently equal in their epistemological or evaluator weight:
“Every philosophy must use its own standards in proving its conclusions; otherwise, it is simply inconsistent. Those who believe that human reason is the ultimate authority (rationalists) must presuppose the authority of reason in their arguments for rationalism. Those who believe in the ultimacy of sense experience must presuppose it in arguing for their philosophy (empiricism)…The point is that when one is arguing for an ultimate criterion, whether Scripture, the Koran, human reason, sensation, or whatever, one must use criteria compatible with that conclusion. If that is circularity, then everybody is guilty of circularity.”
Frame seeks to claim that any philosophical approach creates for itself standards by which it can then compare all considerations and premises. This form of apologetics seeks to argue that Christians are just as justified in claiming Scripture as the measure by which any claims may be justified and any premises evaluated. Before I explain why this is intellectual sleight of hand of the subtlest degree, it is worth examining the line of reasoning Frame utilizes to come to the conclusion that the Bible commands Christians to presuppose its truth (though even a few passing theological encounters should confirm for any philosopher that Christians rarely require an answer any more developed than a passage claiming to be the word of God.) I reproduce it here in its entirety in order to demonstrate the stretch that is required:
“’Lord’ in Scripture refers to the head of a covenant relationship. In that relationship, the Lord dictates to his covenant servants the way they are to live and promises them blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. He also tells them of the blessings that he has already given to them – his ‘unmerited favor,’ or grace , which is to motivate their obedience. Without words of grace, law, and promise, there is no lordship. To recognize the Lord is to believe and obey his words above the words of anyone else. And to obey the Lord’s words in that way is to accept them as one’s ultimate presuppositions.”
So, believing the Scripture to command that it must be treated as the ultimate presupposition, Frame contends that Christians are just as justified (if not infinitely more so) in accepting Scripture as a presupposition as any other philosophical system is in setting its own criteria for evaluation. In one sense, Frame is correct. As Richard Taylor once wrote, we must always start somewhere, even if we are to later return and revise the foundation of our inquiry. And certainly the creation of any new philosophical approach entails a re-imagining or reworking of the way we traditionally consider the world and evaluate our data. Regardless, presupposing the truth of Scripture is far different from presupposing the primacy of an evaluative tool. This is because reason and empiricism, to use Frame’s examples, are methods of evaluation – we utilize the spirit of these methods to evaluate premises. For example, in a rationalist approach, if a conclusion does not follow from its premises then the argument is fallacious. If, in an empiricist approach, we cannot experience a phenomenon, it cannot be confirmed. Rationalism and Empiricism are methodologies, whereas Scripture is not; it is itself a set of premises. What Frame has done, in the contortioned passage quoted above, is stretch the premises of the Bible to resemble a sort of methodology rather than series of claims.
Furthermore, even if we do treat Scripture as a methodology, it is certainly not a properly basic one. To use the Law of Identity as an example, A = A can be seen to be properly basic in that the world and its contents would quite literally be meaningless if it were not true. Rationalism goes so far as to posit that this law must be true in all possible worlds – for who can imagine a world in which objects are not what they are? Presuppositionalism makes use of such logical laws but only after creating a barrier which they cannot transgress, and so such a presupposition depends upon other presuppositions to function. Conversely, it is quite easy to conceive of a world in which Scripture is not true, and, further, doing so does not result in logical contradictions or absurdities. Additionally, Frame also makes use of logical and reasoning to confirm Christianity or other arguments but only after he has presupposed the truth of Scripture, which again is a premise and not a methodology. So, in short, Frame is merely claiming the truth of a premise and ignoring its irrationality or circular argumentation. Defending against the claim that a world can be imagined in which God does not exist, Cornelius Van Til originated what is known as the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God.
Van Til and the Transcendental Argument: God as Ground
On the one hand, the defender attempts to demonstrate that the existence of God is logically necessary for an atheistic as well as theistic worldview. On the other, the defender builds upon the alleged logical necessity of God by claiming that any argument not stemming from divine revelation is therefore not a valid argument, since it attempts to argue against God by excluding Him from His own created system, i.e. the world, the Bible, natural law, etc. Cornelius Van Til calls this phenomenon “borrowed capital” since the non-believer is allegedly using the knowledge of causality or reason, given to her by God, to argue against the existence of God. Now, prima facie this move may appear sound; for, if a defender can demonstrate that God is logically necessary for any rational worldview, then this opens the door to then argue for the validity of scripture.
However, a cursory examination of this approach shows these are two very different and ultimately unrelated claims, since philosophical arguments for the existence of God most often stem from the use of logic and rational reasoning, whereas any (non-circular) argument for or against the validity of scripture must necessarily address textual criticism concerns, logical problems, and evidentiary attacks. So, while it might be the case that God is logically necessary, this necessity offers no support for or against the truth of any scripture over and above that which confirms any qualities which must necessarily be attributed to God.
It is certainly worth noting that Frame does not accept Van Til’s Transcendental Argument because, while he agrees with the premise, the argument requires the use of additional arguments i.e. teleological, etc. to be sufficiently persuasive. It is puzzling that Frame at once recognizes that Van Til is merely postulating the truth of a premise without an argument despite having done so himself. Skipping the reiterations by Frame that all human beings are born with a knowledge of God’s existence and that creation also serves to demonstrate God’s existence (for, undefended, these are baseless claims), Frame does offer an explanation for why the circular reasoning of Presuppositional Apologetics lacks persuasive force for non-Christians.
Noetic Effects of Sin
Based on a theoretical concept popularized by Cornelius Van Til, the ‘noetic effect of sin’ is an attempt to explain or justify why non-Christians are unswayed by arguments based on Scripture and deny God’s existence. In short, the noetic effect of sin is a degradation or erosion of the cognitive powers of nonbelievers due to being born in sin or living in sin. By this account, reason, logic, and understanding all suffer in the non-believer, and the only hope of restoration lies in affirming Scripture and Jesus as Christ. Frame also subscribes to this theory. In one passage, Frame writes, “When sinners try to gain knowledge without the fear of the Lord, that knowledge is distorted (Rom. 1:21-25; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5). This is not to say that every sentence they utter is false. It is to say that their basic worldview is twisted and unreliable. Their most serious epistemological mistake is, typically, to assert their own autonomy: to make themselves, or something other than the biblical God, the final standard of truth and right. So rationalistic philosophy declares human reason to be the final standard.”
And in yet another passage, Frame claims that the noetic effect of sin is so great that nonbelievers (those who suppress their knowledge of God’s existence) are, in fact, irrational: “One might note that this process of suppression is not rational, therefore nonbelievers do not fall under the definition of ‘rational persons’ in the proposed definition of proof. Then that definition is of no apologetic significance. For the whole point of apologetics is to present the truth to unbelievers. The question, then becomes: How should we present the truth to nonrational persons? What constitutes a proof in the apologetics situation?” I will write that out again for disbelieving readers – Frame claims that it is irrational for rationalists to ‘presuppose’ rationality as the ultimate means of evaluation. As mentioned earlier, the contributing factors to this position are that of (1) the supremacy of the Scripture as a ground for all knowledge and (2) the inherent knowledge all human beings possesses regarding the existence and nature of the Judeo-Christian God.
A Circle’s a Circle, No Matter How Small
All of this notwithstanding, Frame seemingly admits that his argument is circular and attempts to mitigate this by differentiating between narrowly and broadly circular arguments. A narrowly circular argument is, to use Frame’s example, “The Bible is the Word of God because it is the Word of God.” Frame goes on to say regarding this argument that, “There is a profound truth vividly displayed in this narrow argument, namely that there is no higher authority than Scripture by which Scripture may be judged.” So, Frame believes such arguments are valid because they speak to a truth about the world (despite being invalid tautologies).
Recognizing that such arguments hold almost zero persuasive force outside of the isolated Christian community, Frame suggests utilizing a more broadly (but still) circular argument: “We may overcome those disadvantages to some extent by moving to a broader circular argument. That broader circular argument says, ‘The Bible is the Word of God because of various evidences,’ and then it specifies those evidences. Now the argument is still circular in a sense, because the apologist chooses, evaluates, and formulates these evidences in ways controlled by Scripture.” And so there we have it.
While Frame and other presuppositional apologists are correct in pointing out that any philosophical system must necessarily utilize some methodology as a means of evaluation, they are grossly mistaken in believing that Scripture stands on equal footing with rationalism et al as a viable and valid methodology. For, upon even a cursory examination, it can be seen that Scripture is nothing more than an aggregation of premises that demand to precede logic, but then attempt to utilize its very laws after the fact. In this way, I agree with Frame that his argumentation is both narrowly and broadly circular, but I believe it is far more questionable as to whether such assertions hold up against more rigorous and basic philosophical methodologies the way he claims.
*In a weak but well-meaning attempt to stymie the flow of potential plagiarizers, I have opted not to include full bibliographical citation in this post. If you would like this information, please feel free to e-mail me or request it in the comment section below and I will contact you.