presuppositional apologetics

About a month ago I received a spirited email from a self-described skeptic whose friend had recommended that he read Don’t Stop Believing.  The reader said that he had been raised in a conservative Christian home, but now he thought that there was insufficient proof for the existence of God and Scripture.  He was singularly unimpressed with my arguments for both in DSB, and he suggested that I man up and mail him a refund.  I responded to him from a presuppositional perspective, which I have edited to conceal his identity. 

Dear Friend:

Thank you for your email.  Regarding your questions, I was writing DSB from within the Christian tradition for other Christians, so I was assuming some basic starting points, or presuppositions.  You do not seem to share those same presuppositions, so let me say a word about them.

You are right that in some sense we all begin with ourselves.  If I believe in something or think that something is true, then it must be “I” who holds this belief.  So you and I both use our rational and empirical faculties as instrumental starting points.

We differ in regard to our content presuppositions.  You seem to begin with yourself again, refusing to believe anything on insufficient evidence.  This would explain why you think that I am a fideist (claiming that “I know because I know even though I can’t prove it”) and why you say that you don’t know whether God exists or the Bible is his Word. 

My content presupposition is that God exists and that he has revealed himself in Scripture.  I appreciate why you would not accept this starting point, but you should note that I am not claiming to be “an oracle channeling God” but rather a recipient of his revelation.  This is the important difference between us:  I believe that God has revealed himself to us and you do not.

Given your autonomous starting point, you expect me to supply an argument or sufficient evidence to prove that God exists and that the Bible is his Word.  I do have lots of evidence for both.  I could argue for God from the beauty and grandeur of creation, the majesty of humanity, and the amazing complexity of a single cell.  I could tell you that the Bible is a wise and life-changing book that has been repeatedly verified by archaeology and history.  But nothing I could say would require you to concede that I am right about either. 

But following the lead of Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame (see his Warranted Christian Belief published by Oxford University Press or his earlier Faith and Rationality), I don’t think that I need to prove either. 

For example, I suspect that deep down you do know that God exists.  Consider why you hold God’s existence to a much higher standard than anything else.  You cannot prove that people have minds (i.e., something which transcends their physical brain), what you ate for breakfast this morning, or even that you exist, and yet you believe in each of these (the Matrix taught us that we all might be digital numbers inside someone’s software package—it sounds farfetched but it’s impossible to disprove).  Why do you demand 100% indubitable proof for God’s existence and not for anything else?  Could it be that you and I have a vested interest in not admitting God’s existence?  That if we conceded that he is God then we could not be? 

Here’s my point:  since presuppositions interpret the evidence, you and I won’t get very far arguing the evidence because our presuppositions will interpret the evidence differently.  The same sunset that I say reveals God will to you be merely a beautiful example of nothing but nature.  So the only way forward is to ask which presuppositions make the best sense of our world.  Which ones are livable?

I wonder what you thought of the argument from Plantinga and C. S. Lewis which I use in chapter 10, that the very rationality we use to refute the evidence for God cannot be explained without him.  If knowledge is a justified true belief, and God is required for truth (unguided natural selection says that we believe what helps us survive but not necessarily what is true), then we can’t have knowledge in a world without God.  So belief in God is required to know anything.  The same argument that seeks to disprove God, inasmuch as it is an argument, already presupposes him.

I am not saying that you have to agree with me, but you should realize that just because I can’t prove God to you does not mean I don’t have good reasons for believing in him.  And so do you. 

Yours,

Mike

19 Comments

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  1. Enjoyed this, thanks!

  2. Great stuff Mike. But what I still want to know is this: In the end did you “man up” and send him a refund? If I were you I ‘d probably have sent him whatever your per book royalty is and then referred him to Zondervan for the rest.

  3. Jonathan Shelley June 8, 2010 — 12:17 pm

    Follow up to Pete’s question: can I really get a refund for every book I’ve purchased that was disappointing? If so, why am I just now learning this? Do I need to contact each author individually or is there a refund clearinghouse somewhere? Is there a special express line for books by Richard Dawkins?

  4. Pete & Jonathan:

    I tried to give him $10 worth of email correspondence instead (I think he bought the e-version). I don’t think that readers understand that authors don’t receive very much of the book’s sale price, so they’re better off writing the publisher (or study up on “caveat emptor” before they make their next purchase). I must say that it is disappointing to be disappointing.

  5. Speaking of disappointing, this year I had Grady Sizemore on my fantasy baseball team, the Geneva Reformers.

  6. Vickey Silvers June 8, 2010 — 1:56 pm

    I am an editor for Christian.com which is a social network dedicated to the christian community. As I look through your web site I feel a collaboration is at hand. I would be inclined to acknowledge your website offering it to our users as I’m sure our Christian reformed audience would benefit from what your site has to offer. I look forward to your thoughts or questions regarding the matter.

    Vicky Silvers
    vicky.silvers@gmail.com

  7. Jonathan Shelley June 8, 2010 — 3:17 pm

    Mike:

    Wait, you aren’t getting rich off the sale of your books? Huh. Then how do you afford the maintenance on that “classic” Honda of yours?

  8. As you say, it’s a Honda, so I’m not sure what kind of maintenance you have in mind. Hondas are like the gospel–all you have to do is stay out of their way.

  9. Jonathan Shelley June 9, 2010 — 7:25 am

    “all you have to do is stay out of their way” – I thought that was Toyota and the recall fixed that.

  10. While I’m a critic, I’m also saddened that you chose to prove yourself right. I suspect as an invitation into life in the kingdom would have been more helpful.

  11. Randy:

    Then I am saddened that you have chosen to “prove yourself right” with me. Stalemate!

  12. @ Randy

    I’m not sure what Dr. Wittmer meant by his response to you, but I think you have misunderstood his post. He did not choose to prove himself right. In fact, he concluded his post admitting he cannot prove God’s existence.

    Rather, he acknowledge that we cannot see the world or the cosmos or the divine us an autonomous knower. Instead, we have learned, adopted, and forgotten presuppositions that mediate our perceptions and understandings.

    Therefore he invited his collocutor to hear the voice of God that calls through His Word as an invitation to follow Christ into the Kingdom of God. Christ has not given us “proof” of his Kingdom to force the world into belief. Instead he has given us the Word and the Spirit. If Wittmer’s presupposition that God has revealed Himself is false, then there is no kingdom to enter.

    If it is true, than Christ has said, “enter through me” (paraphrase)-an invitation that need not (and cannot) be amended by the guests.

  13. Better to prove yourself wrong???
    Invite to the Kingdom? Which church was Paul inviting people to in his mission trips? Oh I forgot there was none.
    Invite to the Kingdom of God as established through the Gospel alone is spot on. But then you invited says he likes Buddha or Krishna. Now what? Go Rob/Brian/Doug/fill in the blank emergent heretic on them and tell them that its all ok – God doesn’t care about such things???
    How dare Paul witness to the Athenians like he knew something they didn’t! How dare he call them ignorant? How dare he contradict their sacred spaces and practices? Must have missed the missional memo! All he had was direct interaction with Jesus and with the church – poor fool – didn’t have the benefits of yoga, mindless meditation and the wisdom of German/French god haters like Nietzshe, Heidegger, Derrida, Lyotard, and not to forget Bloch and Multmann.

  14. It sounds relativistic to me. The Muslims presuppose that God revealed himself through the Koran. For the Mormons, it’s the book of Mormon. The Scientologists presuppose L. Ron Hubbard. It’s all subjective.

  15. <blockquote?Randy:

    Then I am saddened that you have chosen to “prove yourself right” with me. Stalemate!

    Quintessential Wittmer!

    My freaking hero….

  16. $#%! HTML & fat fingers!

  17. Mike – I’m certainly not far off, but I continue to take issue with conflating presuppositionalism (ala Van Til) and Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology. I posted the paper that I wrote for you addressing this tendency at http://3brewers.blogspot.com/2006/04/comparing-cornelius-van-til-and-alvin.html several years ago.

    Besides muddying the waters, it seems that the real force of Plantinga’s argument is lost (i.e., we’re no longer talking about basic beliefs, we’re talking about presuppositions which is, as you note, another circular argument).

    Another idea that I’m kicking around…

    I wonder how – “Here’s my point: since presuppositions interpret the evidence, you and I won’t get very far arguing the evidence because our presuppositions will interpret the evidence differently. ” – is much different than postmodern perspectivalism. I’m not disputing the fact that one’s presuppositions control one’s conclusions, but it at least smacks of perspectivalism don’t you think? And doesn’t Plantingna’s RE have a leg up on this as it side steps the postmodern critique (to some degree and in some sense) by establishing common ground (design plan, proper function, image of God/sensus divinitatus as a theistic belief producing faculty, etc.) and, in so doing, grounding what otherwise might not be much more than a presupposition?

    Curious to hear your thoughts…

  18. Chris:

    You’re right that Plantinga and Van Til have some differences, but the more Plantinga writes the fewer those differences are. The main difference used to be that Van Til was offensive and Plantinga was purely defensive, but now Plantinga is attacking naturalism as self-refuting. I think that Plantinga writes more finely tuned arguments that flesh out Van Til’s big ideas, but I don’t think that they are fundamentally different or that Plantinga’s basic beliefs carve out more common ground than Van Til’s presuppositions. Both men believe that knowledge is perspectival and both think that the Christian belief is the right one. You know firsthand from your day at Plantinga’s cottage that he thinks VT is a fideist, but I think he is wrong about that. As you note in your thesis, Plantinga thinks that the sensus divinitatis is merely a capacity for knowing God while VT thinks it conveys actual knowledge. I think VT is right on that one, but that is the only really significant difference between them, I think.

  19. This was great to read. Very helpful.

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