Saturday, April 14, 2018

Upholding Divine Immutability: Considering Some Difficulties with God as Unchanging

It is sometimes very difficult to think of God as unchanging or outside of time because we want Him to be just like us. We think that we cannot have a relationship with Him unless He is just like us. We suppose the Bible verses about God’s anger and changing His mind are just like what we go through. If we think of God as Pure Act, impassible, immutable, as the classical theist does, it seems like He is too abstract to be what the Bible presents to us. Those outside the faith, and some within, like to point out differences they see in the ‘’god of the philosophers” and the “God of the Bible.” The classical theist has often gone to great lengths in showing this dichotomy is false, provided the former is correctly understood.

I think many people struggle with divine immutability for two reasons. The first is that classical theism is often not properly understood. The second is that the implications denying immutability are accepted without serious reflection. Conceiving of God as changing, emotional, affected by things outside Himself, within time, and other neo-theistic notions have negative implications for the Christian faith. In this post, I will briefly explore how one might navigate a struggle with divine immutability.

Immutability in the classical theist sense means that it is impossible for God to change. The very nature of God is unchanging. There is no way and in absolutely no sense that change can be predicated of God. Divine immutability is arrived at via the process of natural theology, whereby something true of God is known by reasoning from effect to cause beginning with observable everyday things (“medium-sized objects”) in the created order. Immutability belongs to God alone because in God alone there exists no potential to change; there is nothing in God or outside of God that could bring about a change in Him. If God is the first cause, as understood in any hierarchically ordered (per se, vertical) causal series, then God must be Pure Act, One whose essence and existence are identical. (the hierarchical causal series being the one primary concern to the classical theist and his conception of causes). Of course, anything other than this would not be God, it would be something else. The classical theist understands God as Pure Act, demonstrable through unaided reason. All this informs the classical theist theology and biblical prolegomena. The unchangingness of God underwrites proper biblical interpretation. Passages that speak of God as changing are understood as anthropomorphisms, metaphors, or perhaps other means of communicating true things about God’s activity in the world and man’s action in the world and in relation to God. Passages that speak of God as unchanging, such as Malachi 3:6, should be understood as more literal descriptions of God’s nature.

There is a certain qualified agnosticism that the classical theist will accept. After all, we are talking about God. We cannot possibly have comprehensive knowledge of the divine. We can know many things about God, but this will be relatively insignificant in comparison to the entirely of Him. The inherent limitation in the finite creature’s discussion of the infinite Creator is important. We can speak about God from our standpoint, using analogical language. God knows all things, man knows some things. But God knows things in a different way than man does. Both man and God know things truly, the former in a limited way appropriate to his nature, the latter in an infinite and complete way, appropriate to His nature.

The occasional temptation would be to capitulate to a more overarching agnosticism; God is just unknowable or “we cannot really know the answer, so let’s put it in the category of mystery.” To be wholly agnostic is self-defeating and anti-biblical. To throw the whole question of changingness in God into mystery would be unnecessary. At least, this is what the classical theist will argue. There are indeed great mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity and Incarnation. How does Jesus Christ have both a divine and human nature without mixing, conflict, etc.? This is a mystery. Chalcedon and Athanasius give us many more negations than positive affirmations. However, sound Biblical exegesis demonstrates the nature of God as Triune. Divine immutability, however, is not a mystery like this or the Incarnation. That God is immutable is within our ability to deduce without special divine revelation, whereas the Trinity, Incarnation, atonement, heaven, hell, etc. are not.

An interesting point is sometimes pressed regarding the Incarnation; does this not present us with a change in God? It does not. At least if the Incarnation is understood along biblical lines. God the Son, the Second Divine Person of the Trinity, added a human nature to His divine nature. The hypostatic union does not in any way bring about a change in the divine nature. Most early heresies, and many existing today surround the Person of Jesus Christ and the relation of the divine and human natures in Him. We do well to consider the inner workings of the hypostatic union as a great mystery while understanding the basis for our conception of God provides a solid foundation for apprehension and acceptance of the doctrine.

There are serious implications for denying divine immutability. Those struggling with, or opposed to, classical theism will typically hold that God at least changes His mind, as seemingly evinced in the Bible (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14). They might deny that God has physical body parts but might see no problem with the possibility of something in God changing. The divine mutability proponent might think that a change in God’s mind is not a change in His nature. Or they might say that God does not change because He says He will not, but He could change if He wanted to. Thus, it is at least possible in principle for God to change.

But how should these claims about God and mutability be understood? For example, if we take the same rationale given by those citing Bible passages approving of God changing, then we would have to affirm many problematic things. God has feet (Genesis 3:8), lungs (Genesis 2:7), eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9), a voice box (Genesis 1:3), arms (Deuteronomy 26:8). Further, on this interpretation, God needs to find out happenings in the human world (Genesis 11:5, 7) and needs directions to find someone (Genesis 4:9). Yet, the historic Christian faith (classical theist or not) has rightly denied all these things of God. So, there must be another way of correctly understanding these biblical texts. First, because they are internally inconsistent with the word “God.” For instance, God cannot create the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) if He is a physical object within the universe. Secondly, because following these biblical texts in a wooden sense would lead to many contradictions in the Bible (ex. John 4:24). And the extent of these contradictions would be such that any Scriptures referring to God would be thrown into agnosticism at the very least, which would then have downstream implications on all the rest.

Another negative implication as it relates to immutability is the very promise of salvation. If God can in principle change, then do we have any basis to trust that we can be saved from our sins and spend eternity with Him? It is no comfort to say something like “God can change, but said He will not change, and that is good enough for me.” The advocate of such a view has likely not considered something very important here, viz. how is it possible to say that God can, in principle, change? Would God come to know something new? Would He be surprised at something? Would He need to change location? Would He need to feel loved? Would He lack something if every person created since Adam rejected Him? I think the first rhetorical question posed regarding omniscience is enough on its own. Should we really think the Bible is teaching that God needed to know something about the Tower of Babel? Or that He did not know that the Israelites would rebel in the wilderness? Clearly, the Christian must answer in the negative.

An important thing to keep in mind is how we are defining change. The classical theist will typically understand change as the actualization of a potential. The apple is actually on the tree, but potentially on the ground. My skin is actually pale white but potentially tan. When thinking about change, there must be something already actual to bring about the actualization of a potential. Something extrinsic to the changing object is responsible for the change. The chemical reactions in my skin are brought about by the effects of the sun’s rays. The actuality of gravitation and motion draws the apple downward. There might be other ways of defining change, perhaps different states of affairs or something else. In any event, it is not possible for anything to change without there being something outside of the thing that is changing. Even a purely immaterial being thinking about something new or having a different inclination toward one thing or another would have to come about this via new information, a discursively reasoned conclusion, proceeding through a sequence of time of realizing that a new conclusion was reached.

To claim that God can even in principle change is to tacitly admit that there is something outside of God. It is to admit that God has a potential (or potency). This is why it does no good to claim that God could change, but simply wills not to. There is a problem with making a distinction within the divine mind (God’s will versus His knowledge, or something else). Further, if we are basing our salvation on the promise God has made, then our assurance of God keeping this promise is rooted in His nature. If we admit the possibility of change in God, then we allow the possibility that the promise of salvation in Christ might change. There is no way around this. I can say that I trust my wife enough to bet my life that she will not deny her love for me. But I cannot make this claim unequivocally and absolutely. As much as I love her, my wife is a mutable, finite being. Similarly, we treat God as a mutable finite being when we hold that He can change. I can unequivocally place my life in His hands because His very nature assures that His promise is immutable.

Hebrews 13:8 tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This text speaks to the divine nature of the Lord. But how can this really be true if God can change? Strictly speaking, if God can change, this verse would be false or at least indeterminate (requiring infinite time to verify its truthfulness). For, if God can change, then there is no way to affirm that Jesus Christ is the same forever. A ‘hedge’ of some kind would have to be input for the passage to be truthful. Like “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever if He so chooses.” But I think this verse is meant to give believers more confidence in the faith, which would be undermined on the premise of God changing.

Working through revealed and natural theology on classical theism can be very difficult (well, what worthwhile theology is easy?). We must keep in mind the fine-grained distinctions and objects of intellectual engagement that exceed the imagination. We must tread very carefully as we approach the limits of our reason. We must walk within the bounds of Scriptures, rightly dividing the word of truth. We must always approach our study with great humility.

One of the many beautiful aspects of Jesus Christ is that it is through Him, human and divine, that we connect to God. God came to us. In Christ, we connect with One who can identify with our sorrows, pain, affliction. God is thus not distant or abstract; He reaches us where we are. We cannot comprehensively know the divine essence, but we can know Jesus Christ. There is still an element of mystery but also an element of great satisfaction. We can affirm the unchangingness of God while embracing the divine and human in Christ.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Necessary Pairing: Evolutionary Theory and Realism

In this post, I would like to briefly explore some reasons why I think those committed to the theory of evolution (via the extended, modern, or some variation of the core synthesis) should give very careful consideration to their metaphysical commitments. What often gets lost in popular public bantering between proponents/expositors of evolution and (typically religious) detractors is that the theory makes certain claims about reality. And these claims purport to be true, or at least the evolutionary theorist usually claims they are true in some way. For example, natural selection is something that occurs and acts on genes within species structure, population groups, etc. Another example might be common ancestry and speciation events are actual historical events. These examples might be oversimplifications, but my point is simply that are a lot of claims baked into the theory. One must decide how important for components of the theory are literally true. Without a commitment to some form of realism, the evolutionist loses the grounds by which to make a truth claim about his theory.

To start, let us say that the evolutionist is a nominalist. Where does this leave the evolutionary theory? It seems we would be left with anti-realism. One reason is that “species” (or class, phyla, etc.) would be a mere linguistic convention or some logical or semantic placeholder that does not correspond to anything real. If there is nothing essential to a species, then how can we construe speciation events along realist lines? Without a commitment to real species distinction, it is difficult to see how the theory can make consistent truth claims. For example, that at some point there was a Pan-Homo split.

The evolutionist could perhaps be a conceptualist. On this view, something like homo habilis would be a (presumably reducible) mental concept. You or I could think and speak about the same general idea (maybe), but there would still not be anything extra-mentally real about homo habilis. This also leads to anti-realism about the evolutionary theory. There are numerous other anti-realist views. And each of these would be equally unhelpful to the evolutionist.

If one is going to be realist about evolutionary theory, then some type of metaphysical realism is necessary. A committed naturalist/materialist might balk at this. But they have no other good options. If a class, species, group, etc. are not real things in some way, then what can the theory help us know about the genuine history of biological organisms, their variation, operation, and so on? Can one really execute a proper taxonomy or determine LCAs without upholding some type of realism? Surely, one would not want to argue that a critical speciation event such as CHLCA was not a real occurrence (whether more complex and gradual or sudden). But if species are not real things, then what can we make of CHLCA? The answer is not very much. The evolutionist is aiming at the truth in scientific results, and realism must be part and parcel of that.

Since the evolutionist should be some type of realist, what type of realist should he be? Platonism might be an option. There are, of course, myriad variations, but one might take a basic version and think the particulars of biological study are merely instantiations of universals that exist in another realm. There is a library of Platonic forms by which the evolutionary biologist could classify and organize his work. Besides the standard objections to Platonism, I think there is some extra baggage in applying this theory to evolutionary biology. The Third Trilobite Argument is surely a problem to address. But questions of supervenience, causal relations, and others seem like they would be quite difficult to overcome. Here I think some of the issues raised against Erik Weilenberg’s Atheistic Moral Platonism would apply. Still, I will leave this as a potential, yet unlikely, option for the time being.

I think a more plausible and ultimately helpful account would be something like an Aristotelian-Thomist moderate realism. This is for two reasons. First, the notion of formal causes or substantial forms would present the necessary ‘natural kind’ or ‘species-essence’ by which to conceive of a species or class in a truth-testable way. Speciation events could be true in principle because there could presumably be a way, via genetics, cladistics, etc., to affirm distinct biological substances, A vs. B. Without this type of realism, what exactly would be correspondent to a speciation event? Species pliability is problematic for evolutionary realism, but nominalism (per above) is a bad option. The evolutionist should want to stay away from holding these things as nominal or mere constructs.

Secondly, the notion of Aristotelian final causes would provide additional lift. Intrinsic final causes, the inherent tendency of X to Y, would underpin the understanding of organisms to act in certain ways. The process of selection itself seems dependent upon this notion for coherence. In the absence of final causes, there would be no compelling reason to even rationalize observed regularity in nature at the fundamental level of physics and chemistry. At a higher level, species are intelligible insofar as they tend toward certain operations and actions. Species A tends toward a certain diet, reproductive cycle, migration pattern, and so forth. Too many aberrational observations in A leads us to re-think A, break out sub-variations within A, or draw other conclusions entirely. It is precisely due to final causes that A is analyzable for science.

I have tried to sketch a few reasons why the evolutionary realist must necessarily step into realism to preserve the truth value of his theory. Aristotelian realism presents the most attractive option, and perhaps the shortest move. Without formal and final causes, essences and goal-directedness, evolutionary theory can only turn to Platonism. There does not seem to be a good reason to force Platonism given the advantages of the Aristotelian apparatus. If evolutionary theory is anti-realist, it cannot be taken as a true or likely even a limiting account of natural history.

Following closely on the heels of these conclusions are deeper questions about natures/essences and final causes. Can we just stop there without asking more questions? Questions that perhaps go beyond the bounds of physical sciences? For Aristotle, the answer is that we cannot prevent further inquiry into the science of causes and being qua being, viz. metaphysics. Studying the physical sciences leads us to seek further knowledge. I think this is very exciting and shows the systematic compatibility of science and metaphysics. There are also theistic implications that come into the fold, which I will leave for a future post.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Presupposing Idealism (Part 2 of 2)

This post is a continuation of "Presupposing Idealism (Part 1 of 2)"

The presuppositionalist cannot be a realist for the fact that he demands a mode of knowing that is simply not possible on realism. He demands the starting point of an idea or belief. But ideas are not things. He must also account for connecting thought to reality, which is not possible when thought and reality are walled off from each other. 

If the presuppositionalist started from things and not ideas/beliefs, then his view would not get off the ground. Because to start from things would be to acknowledge that we come to know things through the senses, that we know truth by correspondence to reality, that we can know God through His effects, and that we know the Bible is true because we first know what truth is, what language means, and so forth. For example, how can we understand the Bible if we do not first know language or understand concepts derived from the apprehension of being as it is? So, we cannot truly start with presupposing the Bible because such a thing cannot in principle be done. The logical and sequential order of man’s natural mode of knowing is reversed on the presuppositionalist view. Per Van Til:

"We should accept the Scripture testimony about itself. If we did anything else we would not be accepting Scripture as absolute. The only alternative then to bringing in a God who testifies of himself and upon whose testimony we are wholly dependent, is not to bringing in God at all. And not to bring in God at all spells nothing but utter ruin for knowledge" A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 202

One accepting what Van Til says here, and in other places, cannot be a realist. The mode of knowledge posited by Van Til can only be understood within an idealist framework. 

When the Christian claims that the Bible is true, we are claiming that the Bible corresponds to reality. We are claiming that what the Bible reports about events is true, what it tells us about God is true, and all the rest. Yet, how can we know something is true if the mode of human knowing is circumvented? This is precisely what the presuppositionalist is asking. He is essentially saying that the way we normally know things does not apply to the Bible or God. So, taking our que from the presuppositionalist, should the unbeliever suspect that his normal way of knowing things is delivering falsehood? It seems so. Yet, if this is the case, then why should he trust the normal way he is knowing the things that the presuppositionalist is telling him about God and the Bible?! Throwing shade at the unbelievers’ knowing faculties undermines the entire conversation. Further, arguing that a person’s knowing faculties are mixed with error is an argument for skepticism. And the only fertile ground for skepticism is in idealism. Moreover, one would be arguing from an epistemic elitism; the presuppositionalist holds that only they have proper knowing faculties to adjudicate truth and falsehood. This would then amount to an a priori denial of anything the opposing person says in disagreement.

What the presuppositionalist must also avoid is claiming that, once the Bible is presupposed as true, the truth of it will then be evident. This self-defeating rationale is employed in other religions (such as LDS). Further, I do not see any limit to the potential post-hoc rationalization or confirmation bias problems that can arise if it is asked that the Bible be presupposed as true in order to establish its truth.

Is the Bible true for the believer and unbeliever? Certainly, we want to say that it is. Thus, we must say that it is objectively true, and that the unbeliever may withhold assent or try to undermine its truth. In any event, there are propositions within the Bible which we assert correspond to mind-independent reality. And if we desire to maintain this correspondence, we cannot demand a bifurcated way of knowing things. So, do we know the Bible because the ideas of it are implanted in us? Or, do we know the Bible because we learn language, understand truth, then apprehend that the Bible is not contradicting itself, reports historical events, etc.? I think the latter is much more plausible.

What about God simply giving us knowledge of things? Surely, He could circumvent the natural knowing process and grant us knowledge of Himself directly (beaming it into our mind) or of the Scriptures. I would not necessarily disagree but would qualify my response, lest we saw off the branch upon which we are sitting. The only way we can be sure that God is revealing things to us is by having a reality by which we can understand such revelation. If God tells Noah to build an ark, Noah knows what an ark is, what rain is, what a flood is, and so forth. Noah understands and grasps language and meaning. And Noah understood this before God spoke to Him. God communicates to us in accordance with the type of beings we are. It would go against the nature of God to usurp how He created man and would go against His nature to think that He would create us to understand things in a certain way and then constantly override that when He needed to especially reveal something to us (whether an Old Testament patriarch or New Testament believer). I think God communicates to us in accordance with our nature. If God shows the Hebrew special instructions for metalworking within the Tabernacle, then this is understood as a human understand things. This is, of course, one of the reasons why the Bible is written in human language, for us to learn, pass along, teach from, and to treasure. Does the Holy Spirit tell us what the passages mean? Or does He guide us in our understanding, drawing is closer to the Lord and His Word? I think our sanctification is described in the Bible as a cooperative effort, and it is for our benefit that we become obedient. This does not at all diminish the spiritual life of the believer but makes it intelligible and veridical.

I suspect a major reason why the presuppositionalist must posit God on pain of never getting to God is because his idealism forbids him from knowing things in themselves. Baked into his philosophical anthropology is a tacit perceptual subjectivism. Without God as the transcendental, there be only nihilistic relativism because things cannot ultimately be known as they are. Thus, Christian proofs for God, as famously attacked by Kant, are vulnerable because the reasoning gap of effect to cause cannot be bridged. Positing God at the outset, and the Christian worldview as a transcendental framework, solves this problem. Again from Van Til:

That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize. - A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.201

It is clear how the idealist lays down his method before exploration as if he knows what he will encounter and how he will react and respond before he sets out. The backwardness of this approach is evident of a type of “taxi-cab” fallacy; one arbitrary dismisses how he arrived at his present location. As Gilson accurately states, the idealist puts forth a method as a precondition for philosophy instead of finding method in his philosophy (as the realist does). The idealist starting point “has neither the evidence of an axiom nor the value of a principle” (Gilson, Methodical Realism, p.85). Further, there are no compelling reasons to accept the major problems that Descartes, Kant, or others in the modern era, were trying to solve. The problems begetting idealism and the transcendental are demonstrable facades. And once we see these problems for what they are, the need for the transcendental method – and all of its attending problems - fades away.

I think the presuppositionalist could resort to saying, “God must regenerate you, then you will know the truth.” But how does the presuppositionalist know that he has been regenerated to know the truth? He would just be appealing to the Scriptures to establish the truth he has already presupposed as true. Or, how does he avoid the question of a demon or evil spirit giving him a false idea of regeneration? The presuppositionalist might also reply that only a regenerated person can understand the truth of the Scriptures and God, the unbeliever cannot. The Bible does say the things of God are foolishness to the impenitent man, but this does not mean the unbeliever cannot understand and apprehend what is being told to him; he simply rejects it as false based on myriad (futile, I think) grounds. And, of course, I agree that the unbeliever’s view is irrational. But, again, the way we establish the rationality of our view is of the utmost importance. The believer may understand the truths of the Scriptures in a much deeper, and entirely distinct way than the unbeliever. Think of an orphan reading a letter from what he took to be another person’s father, and then later discovering through various means that he was actually reading a letter from his own father. The letter would mean much more on the second reading.

Moving away from idealism is important for Christians. Upholding the divide between object and subject, whether explicitly or implicitly, brings intractable problems for the Christian worldview. We must maintain that what man knows are things. Thus, the point of departure and proper starting point for philosophy is being. There is nothing to know if there are not things. Getting this out of order led to the problems that the presuppositionalist sees as highly relevant. These problems need not have arisen in the first place, so continuing to give them life and constructing philosophical and apologetic systems around them represents time that could be better spent elsewhere.

I realize the presuppositional question and method is closely tied to Reformed Theology. And those strongly committed to that tradition will bristle at the points raised above. Still, we should seek a unified worldview and biblical prolegomena. Inconsistency must be rooted out where we find it.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Presupposing Idealism (Part 1 of 2)

Taking epistemology as the point of departure is fraught with insufferable difficulty. Yet, this is the lamentable method used in a great deal of modern philosophy.  We take knowledge, or even the idea of our own existence, and then ask questions and analyze it. How did I come to have the thought, idea, perception, etc. that is before me right now? What is the logical relation between the ideas I have, the propositions I take as true, etc.? Only once I establish that I know can I then explore that which I know. Without a foundation of knowledge, I cannot speak about anything. If I posit something as existing, someone will ask me how I know about it. And if I cannot provide a good answer, then I might as well not even talk about it. Ontology is subordinated to epistemology. This is particularly evident in the Christian presuppositional tradition.

One problem I see with the presuppositional approach is that it is fundamentally idealist. In this post, I will try to explain what I mean by this and why it is an issue. Note, I am not making a critique of presuppositional apologetics per se. A great deal of ink has already been spilled on that. There are underlying philosophical commitments that are prior, and, I think, more interesting than strictly apologetic approach. I do not have a particular brand of presuppositionalism in mind. Rather, what lies within my sights is a consistent philosophical theme in Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, Oliphint, and others in this tradition, as well as those they have either directly or indirectly influenced. I also see presuppositionalism evident in preaching and pulpit teaching in many evangelical churches, so I aim to address this incipience also.

If we know anything, an important thing to ask is what man knows. Here we have two choices; does he know ideas/beliefs (thought) or things? If we say ideas (or beliefs), then our outlook changes quite a bit. For one thing, to say we know ideas immediately severs any possible physical world from the mind. Such a position naturally radiates from perceptual subjectivism. On this view, the mind is cut-off or mediated from the physical world (if the world is even held to exist). A dimly lit exit sign directs us to a dubious abductive labyrinth. Escape has been attempted by the greatest minds in modern philosophy to no avail because there is no way out. On the other hand, we can say man knows things. And if man knows things, he must know them as they really are. This can only occur if objects are antecedent to the knowing subject, impinging upon the subject’s senses. Such would be man’s natural mode of knowing, the way he comes to know things in his physical, temporal state.

Something of great importance follows if man knows reality (things). His mode of knowing proceeds from object to subject, from sensation to perception to abstraction to intellection. As a rational being, this process is natural; it belongs to his very essence. It is just what man does qua man. There is something outside of man by which man comes to know himself. I am, therefore I think versus I think, therefore I am. It is the Cogito of Descartes in reverse. If the way we know reality is through the process as outlined above, then the yardstick for truth is reality (being). To speak truly is to say that which is. There is a correspondence to reality, where a formal identity comes to exist between the knower and object known. I do not aim to fully defend direct realism here, but merely to highly its differences with idealism and the attending consequences of each. Even if an extended defense of my account of realism fails, the rendering and critique of idealism would remain.

Where does the presuppositionalist land? As I said above, I think he cannot help but land in idealism. Though, it would certainly be problematic to affirm idealism outright. It should be further noted that, by idealism, I do not mean anything other than the basic view that what man knows are beliefs and ideas. For example, holding that knowledge is justified true belief is fundamentally idealist. By idealism, I mean any view that affirms perceptual subjectivism. And by idealism, I mean one that would hold the only possible starting point for knowing reality is the thoughts/ideas/beliefs we have.

The modern/critical problem of Descartes begat idealism, cutting the mind off from things in pursuit of an indubitable foundation. The offspring of idealism is the mind/body problem, which in turn yields the substance dualism/materialism dilemma. (We might add panpsychism in there as a third option, but I think that quickly lands in idealism). Both the substance dualist and materialist options are bitter pills, viz. the interaction problem and the reductionist problem. The mind/body problem is also biblically troubling. Substance dualism, in the Cartesian or Platonic sense, strains the bounds of exegetical credulity. Does the Bible really teach that man is two distinct substances? On the other side, materialism eviscerates the biblical text entirely.

The presuppositionalist tells us that, unless we presuppose the triune God of the Bible (and the truth of the Scriptures), nothing could in principle ultimately make sense. We would contradict ourselves somewhere, probably very soon in the discussion. Any time we use logic, reason, math, etc. we are, in a very real way, implicitly affirming Christian theism. Thus, to deny God is to deny any basis by which we might make such a denial. The non-Christian must borrow from the Christian worldview to argue against the Christian. The Christian framework is the only coherent means of understanding and explaining things.

Given his fundamental position, I contend that the presuppositionalist cannot be a realist. He cannot be a realist because he takes epistemology as his point of departure, thus beginning with knowledge and not things. The presuppositionalist cannot be a realist because realism would open up the possibility of knowing God through the things He has made. On realism, man would know things, apprehend causes, and would reason from effect to cause. In short, with realism comes natural theology. And natural theology is what the presuppositionalist will deny.

A major question that arises is how the presuppositionalist knows about the triune God of the Bible. More importantly, how does he think that the pagan knows about God (Romans 1:18-20). It could only be from either (a) having the idea or belief in God or (b) based on conclusions drawn from interaction with the world. The presuppositionalist can opt for (a), holding that God implanted knowledge of Himself in all men. Perhaps the sensus divinatatus per John Calvin is in view. There are a few issues here. First, this does not necessarily seem like the triune God of Scripture. For if it were, the divinely implanted idea of God manifests quite differently throughout observed cultures in the world. The presuppositionalist will immediately revert that sinful man suppresses true knowledge of God. But then we have still not accounted for that true knowledge in the first place. How does the presuppositional (or covenantal) understand truth =? They might respond that God gives the idea, and then we interact with reality to calibrate the idea (prior to suppressing it). But this is the exact opposite process of how we come to know things unless we think that Plato’s theory of reminisce, or something like it, is true.

Even within an idealist context, it would be bizarre to claim that knowledge starts with an idea and then we reverse engineer or justify it via some investigatory process of prior ideas. A reverse building process, as it were. Do we always start with a complex idea and then investigate how we came to that via simpler ideas? Or do we move from the simple to the complex? Further, why would the way of having the idea of God be different than other ideas? Is knowledge of God innate? If so, what other innate knowledge might we have, and how do we distinguish? I cannot see any non-special pleading answers to these questions that can escape idealism. Starting with an idea will always result in capitulating to a coherence version of truth or making an unjustified leap to the physical world.  

The presuppositionalist holds that without first positing Christianity, the world cannot ultimately make sense. The contention that the universe is only intelligible because of God is true, but the method by which we make this assertion makes all the difference. I remain with the question of where the notion of God is coming from? And the presuppositionalist certainly holds that man has knowledge of God and truth. Here is Oliphint’s position, via a summary from his tenets in Covenantal Apologetics “All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations…Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know.”


Given that man does know God and about Him, can the presuppositionalist maintain (b) per above? He cannot if he wishes to remain consistent. Such a move would undermine the entire project. However, this is what I think the presuppositionalist does. He concludes God exists by his natural mode of knowing (reasoning from effect to cause). Once arriving at that conclusion, he then claims the only reason he was able to reason in the first place is because of the conclusions he made based upon use of his reason (God). The presuppositionalist ignores the fact that he did not (nor could not) actually start with the existence of the God of the Bible. Yet he places this demand upon others. It is a highly unreasonable demand, and one that is completely unnecessary.