Saturday, January 5, 2008

I forgot about presuppositionalism

(As I look over what I have written I have to say that no matter how carefully I write about presuppositionalism, there will be presuppositionalist readers who will surmise that I don't truly understand their position. My experience with presuppositionalists has been as follows: most of the time, either presuppositionalists will say that I am an unbeliever or they will say that it is obvious that I do not understand what they're trying to get at, because if I did, I would duly agree with them. Come to think of it, this all sounds very Barthian.)

In my last post I mentioned WTS without mentioning presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is a very big part of the Westminster tradition and unfortunately has the notorious distinction of impenetrably shielding Westminsterites from a critical examination of inerrancy. Inerrancy is one of the sacrosanct doctrines that is epistemologically presupposed at WTS (along with a good dose of the Dutch Calvinist tradition). That being the case, it becomes nigh-impossible to genuinely and critically engage a presuppositionalist about inerrancy. My understanding of presuppositionalism is that certain tenets of the faith are presupposed when engaging in apologetics and not practically in need of defense, for defenses will fall on deaf ears since sin is obscuring reason's ability to see the truth. [Christians also have deaf ears (to various degrees, the Reformed having better "hearing"). This belief explains Westminster's idiosyncratic view that every discipline is ultimately theology. It may also help account for the non-presuppositionalist charge that Westminster is not really interested in doing philosophy, for example, they only do theology.]

I talked with many of the PhD apologetics students during my time at WTS. (I audited a PhD level course, "Philosophy Useful for Theology" or something like that. I dropped the course after the professor began repeatedly asking me, "Do you believe in God? Do you believe in God?" when I complained that the class was primarily a "Let's compare famous philosophers with Cornelius Van Til" class. I also insisted to the professor that Van Til's apologetic was a cosmological argument in disguise and not transcendental.) I was told time and again that I am an unbeliever because of my willingness to subject inerrancy to an unhealthy dose of critical scrutiny. Inerrancy is one of the main tenets of the Christian faith and it can only properly be accepted by (Reformed) believers. It is a faith position that is presupposed by believers and can only properly be accepted by the (truly) Reformed. If the position is not presupposed by a believer then the believer in question is acting epistemologically like an unbeliever. It is ok to give arguments for inerrancy, but sin will prevent people from appreciating their true cogency. Calvin, for example, tried to argue for an authoritative scripture. But his types of arguments do not clinch the matter and the inerrancy of scripture is something one can (and must?) be certain of. To argue for the inerrancy of scripture, then, can never really accomplish what Christians need; presupposing inerrancy, therefore, is the way to go. What the Bible says of itself is true, we simply presuppose it. (In class at WTS, we were exposed to a deductive argument for inerrancy, but, as I try to argue in my book, these arguments do not at all help us understand what inerrancy is supposed to mean--a full-blown inductive study of scripture and the historical and cultural matrix within which it was composed and compiled is necessary for that. Not only that but our cultural contributions to theological formulations must also be taken into account. These kinds of investigations seem to me to necessitate a major revision of the doctrine.)

Thus inerrancy is established as being methodologically beyond critical discussion precisely because it is one of the things that is presupposed, which implies tacitly to the presuppositionalist that inerrancy has already been figured out; nothing radically new can be said of it. It can hardly pay to revisit it, especially with an eye toward radical criticism (say, by examining inner-biblical exegesis and musing whether present construals of inerrancy are way off the mark.) [And this can be especially unsettling because now professors whose job it is to actually look at and deal with the Bible's "problems" will have little reason not to examine them with incredible candor, since the problems in scripture should never theoretically pose a threat to inerrancy (because the doctrine is presupposed and not dependent upon evidence).] In fact, the "don't touch inerrancy" mindset becomes so entrenched in presuppositionalism and viewed as such a sacred postulate that I am persuaded only a momentous life circumstance (which could be something as minor as studying at an institution that is not presuppositionalist in its apologetic attitude) can existentially work to bring about a presuppositionalist change of mind. Consider Daniel Wallace's personal experience:

"Many today are uncomfortable with an inductive approach to bibliology. I have to wonder if perhaps one of the reasons they are is that it is simply easier to hold to a na├»ve fideism than it is to examine the data. I have to wonder if perhaps the presuppositionalism of Reformed epistemology has run amok in some circles. Yes, I am a presuppositionalist in my core beliefs, but I believe that there is a place for evidence. When I was a full-blown presuppositionalist years ago, I slipped into a kind of doctrinal arrogance. I didn’t distinguish which truths were grounds for others. This caused a certain smugness on my part, and allowed me the luxury of viewing all doctrines as created equal. But I learned a rather valuable lesson while in the master’s program. I came home to California for a Christmas vacation early on in the program. And I had lunch with my uncle, David Wallace. He was the first graduate from Fuller Seminary to earn a Ph.D. He earned it at Edinburgh University, under Matthew Black. But he also logged some time in various places in Europe—studying with Baumgartner, Barth, and others. He was not pleased with my choice to attend Dallas Seminary; I was clueless about what he really believed. During the lunch, I asked him what he thought about inerrancy. His response startled me, and changed my perspective for all time. He essentially said that he didn’t hold to the doctrine (though he said so much more colorfully than that!). I thought to myself, “Oh no! My uncle is going to hell!” I felt compelled to ask him what he thought about the bodily resurrection of Christ, fearing what I would hear next. After all, without inerrancy, we really can’t know anything about Christ, right? To my surprise, David said, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we’re all dead in our sins.” He was certain about the resurrection of Christ. But how could he be without a bibliological presupposition to back it up? I cannot tell you how great the existential crisis was for me at that moment. Up until this time, I had believed that inerrancy was an essential belief of the Christian faith, one that was indispensable to salvation. When David affirmed the central credo of salvation, I could not deny his spiritual status. I came to the sudden realization that one could be saved without embracing inerrancy." ( [NB: Wallace maintains his belief in inerrancy; I am only drawing attention to his experience regarding presuppositionalism.]

Opponents of presuppositionalist apologetics almost always point to John Warwick Montgomery's classic refutation of presuppositionalism in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, when they engage presuppositionalists, but that essay typically does not impress, for presuppositionalists insist that Montgomery does not truly understand presuppositionalism and that his critique accordingly misses the mark. Perhaps John Mark Reynolds has a better chance; his parody of presuppositionalism is the best I 've een. (

[NB--Craig does not make a connection between WTS and anti-scholarship--I'm the one who did that.]