presuppositional follow-up

My new friend got back to me a few days later.  He said that his presupposition was that he knew very little and was likely wrong about many things.  And he suggested that my view was immoral for not caring enough to offer proof for itself when heaven and hell were at stake.  I think that’s enough to set the context for my longer attempt to explain the important role of presuppositions.

 Dear Friend:

I respect your journey and am benefitting from your push back.  So thank you for sharpening me with your questions.  I made a few notes as I read your email, and I’ll number them to help me keep them in a logical order.

1. Your beliefs that you “know very little” and are “likely wrong about many things” are probably not your presuppositions.  These are not your most foundational beliefs but are rather the result or consequence of your presuppositions.  If you think about it, your ultimate presupposition must be something like “I believe only what I can prove,” and your resulting skepticism arises from the fact that you don’t think you can prove very much.

2. This skepticism, which on one level is honest and admirable, is ultimately unlivable.  You can’t do much in life if you really think that you know very little.  In fact, I suspect that you actually are confident about your belief in many things.  For example, you know that Obama is president, that the Cavs are in the playoffs, and that you exist, etc. 

3. Even your statement that my view is “immoral” implies that you believe in the existence of God.  Can you logically claim that something is evil if there is no God who makes it so?  My view may offend you, but that by itself doesn’t qualify it as evil.  It may offend an entire group, but we’re still merely dealing with individual or social preference.  One of the best proofs for God’s existence is the impossibility of the contrary.  If God does not exist, then can anything be truly evil?

4. All systems of thought are circular, and yours is as circular as mine.  Your presupposition is that you should only believe what you can prove.  But can you prove that presupposition?  If you and I start from different presuppositions, then our evidence and argument will never persuade the other.  The best we can do is ask each other whose presuppositions make the best sense of the world.  Do I think and live as if your presuppositions are true or do you rely upon mine?

5. All systems of thought are circular, but they don’t have to be viciously circular.  My presuppositions are that God exists and that he reveals himself in Scripture.  Because I believe that God reveals himself to me, I don’t believe that I am starting with myself but with the God who breaks into my circle from above. 

I understand and appreciate why you are probably screaming right now, “Saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.”  I can tell you that there are lots of evidence for the Bible being a special book—such as its truthfulness, wisdom, fulfilled prophecies, and manuscript tradition—but at the end of the day the Spirit of God must overcome our blindness and enable us to see that the Bible is more than this but is actually the very words of God.  I suspect that you have felt something like this when you read the words and stories of Jesus. 

6. So I begin with the presupposition that Scripture is God’s Word, but I still have to read this correctly.  Here I think I am as humble as you, for I freely admit that my interpretation could be wrong.  I am puzzled why you say that I think that whatever I believe is true simply because I believe it.  I have never thought that and in fact regularly teach against that.  I believe many things that are false, and if I knew which ones they were I would change them!

However, with all due humility and recognizing that I could be wrong, I must acknowledge that the central message of Scripture is clear and accessible to all who read it.  Even if you limit yourself to the message of Jesus, you cannot avoid his claim that you must believe in and follow him to be saved from the terrors of hell.  I don’t see how it is arrogant or naïve to say so.

7. I appreciate why you are offended that my view “doubts [your] sincerity.”  I do not know you, so obviously my view does not assert this in a personal way.  However, my presupposition is that the Bible is the Word of God, and so I believe Rom. 1:18-32 when it says that everyone knows and suppresses the knowledge of God that they have.  I think that this suppression may occur at a deep, subconscious level—so that you may honestly believe that you are searching for God and simply following where the evidence leads.  While this may be true, Rom. 1 says that you already possess sufficient evidence and even knowledge of God, and that those who claim ignorance of God are “without excuse.”

8. I carefully considered whether to ask this, so understand that I realize this may seem offensive, but is it possible that your skepticism is a last ditch effort to avoid the claims of Christ?  You and I are both sinners—wanting to play God and control our world (look around and you’ll realize that this is the universal human condition).  Your skepticism does provide intellectual cover for keeping God at arm’s length.  If you honestly aren’t sure about his existence or his revelation, then you have the freedom not to obey him.  I know this may offend you, but at least acknowledge that you have a vested interest in not knowing God or his Word.  This alone doesn’t prove that your view is wrong, but it at least should make you suspicious.  And to be fair, I acknowledge that as a seminary professor and author I also have a vested interest in my view—so perhaps we both should be suspicious of our motives!

9.  Your email ends with the admission that you are “keenly aware of all my short-comings and figuratively beat my chest in despair at my own repeated failures.”  I take this to mean that you understand that in some sense you are a sinner.  If that’s true, then you must also know that you need grace.  Not just a little bit but all of it.  You cannot be free of your guilt without the personal God you have offended pouring his grace upon you. 

Consider this argument:

a. Your sense of guilt implies the existence of God (if you haven’t offended a personal absolute then there is no reason to beat yourself up over your sin).

b. If God exists, then he must be all good and all powerful (a being short of this would not be God, or the greatest possible being).

c. If God is all good, then it is probable that he has provided a way of grace to save us from our sin and guilt.

d. Jesus is the only candidate for this job.  Other religions, such as Islam, say that we partially save ourselves.  Only Christianity says that our salvation is entirely of grace.  We may not be convinced that Jesus is God, but we must know that he is precisely what we need.  And that is worth giving Jesus and his gospel a long look—and the benefit of the doubt.  Is it more appropriate to withhold belief in Jesus until you have an ironclad argument or to believe unless you have good reason not to?




Add yours →

  1. Dr. Mike,

    This has been a very encouraging and interesting discussion. Thanks for sharing. Your posts always make me think, sometimes really hard, sometimes I just laugh out loud.

    If Izzo goes to Cleveland does that mean God likes Cleveland or still hates the entire city?


  2. That would make Izzo a Christ figure. I’m not sure if he wants to absorb the wrath of a God who just seems petty.

  3. This is cool to see the apologetical position I take in action!

  4. I have an atheist/secular humanist friend and as I read point 3, particularly the statement, “Can you logically claim that something is evil if there is no God who makes it so?” I am hearing him in the back of my mind going on about how morality and religion have evolved because somewhere down the line we needed them to preserve & advance the human race and form societies.

    How would you respond to that sort of argument?

  5. Jonathan Shelley June 11, 2010 — 2:57 pm


    That’s the lithmus-test question, isn’t it? If we can come up with a viable system of morality without God, then why do we need him? One of the more effective rebuttals to the “evolutionary ethics” viewpoint is that it seems, if our ethics and morality are advancing as we as a species or society progresses, that we should be increasingly more moral and ethical. Yet our experience seems to indicate otherwise. At best, we are merely stagnant, but in reality we seem intent on finding new and bigger ways of killing, destroying, stealing, and a host of other means of displaying our utter depravity.

    The real issue, though, is not whether one can build an objective humanist ethic. The real issue is which ethical system makes more sense – both philosophically and pragmatically. The question is really the same as the question about how we can trust our own minds – our faith in our own rationalness requires a reason why we can assume we are rational, which indicates the existence of some greater being who gave us our rationalness. The same is true of morality. The very fact that we are searching for an objective ethical system seems to assume the existence of a greater being who has instilled us with a sense of morality that compels us to adhere to an ethical system. If you remove the existence of the greater being, then it because increasingly difficult to answer (1) why we even want ethics in the first place; and (2) how we establish an ethical system. Belief in God sufficiently answers both questions.

  6. One other point to be made. If there is no greater being who exists outside of and over the creation, if we are not in any way accountable to him, and if there is no one but ourselves in whom to find joy and fullfilment then there is no sustainable “aught”. i.e. “I aught to care for my fellow human beings. I aught to care for the welfare of the planet and its wild life. I aught not kill or injure my fellow man.” The list could go on but without the self revelation of the God who made us and to whom I am ultimately accountable there is no reason beyond the pragmatics of my own comfort and ease to care in the least about my fellow man.

    I believe it to be axiomatic that any system of ethics or morality that is not based in a personal other (i.e.God) will tend to serve the few to the abasement of the many. I think history makes this abundantly clear.


  7. I believe Nietzsche was the first to question the mental stability of those who even talk about good and evil. A natural consequence of his atheism and his belief that morality itself is a detriment to the development of the human race. If the atheist is consistent (unlikely but always possible!) then he would have to argue from the development point of view that events such as the holocaust and Columbine must also be evolutionary “goods” as they MUST have cash value according to evolutionary theory. (Since they occur) The problem with the atheist pov here is that there isn’t even a rational objective argument for why societies must exist, get along, etc. as Rousseau and many of the Romantics thought. Given the presuppositions of your friend – one just has to answer a simple question – Why should bags of chemical reactions get upset about another bag of chemical reactions rearranging the atoms of another bag of chemical reactions? Or in our parlance – If someone is vivisected by the Nazis – should we care? And why?

  8. Jonathan Shelley June 14, 2010 — 8:23 am


    Good points, and I think a secular humanist would respond that Nietzsche didn’t get it quite right. Part of evolution is the desire to survive and in humans, as in all pack animals, that instinct extends beyond the self to include the pack. Humans have evolved to the point that we no longer think just of self, pack, family, clan, society, or culture, but of the species. At least, humans are supposed to have reached that point! Thus, we should care when the atoms of a particular chemical reaction are rearranged because it is contrary to the survival of the species. As a species, we have a vested interest in the well-being of all the members of the species.

    Also, I have read some secular humanists (although I can’t recall the names off the top of my head) who do argue that humans are more than the sum of their chemical reactions. This theory of “emerging personhood/personality” is big in theological anthropology right now – see Phil Clayton, Joel Green, Nancey Murphy, and John Polkinghorne. This synergy (if I can use an overused business term) explains the apparent unique aspects of humanity and the human mind, and is often used to explain the human soul or spirit. John Cooper has responded to these thoughts in a couple of journal articles, and I believe he is working on/just finished a new book on philosophical anthropology. Even though it is dated, his Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting (Eerdmans, 2000) is still a phenomenal resource on this topic. JP Moreland and Scott Rae pick up Dr. Cooper’s train of thought and show how it applies specifically to ethics in their book, Body and Soul (IVP, 2000).

  9. Jonathan. -I appreciate your response. I think the problem with the approach as given by Clayton et al is that of wishful thinking. Normative evolutionary thought places all observable traits, characteristics, etc. As somehow having survival cash value for the species in the past therefore as those MIT profs argued four years ago, even rape must have served a species good in the past (it was funny/sad to read how they tried to spin their way out of the obvious conclusions to that argument!). So dachau,darfur, fill in the blank atrocity of your choice, given that it occurs, by definition must have survival cash value-tough luck for those on the other end of evolutions great leap forward!!!
    Another irony in the approach you mention, is that how can anyone argue, given the last hundred years of war and genocide,that somehow the human species is hard wired for survival(!!!!!!!!) is beyond me. I think rose colored glasses must come with obligatory LSD doses these days.
    Nietzsche was a wonderfully optimistic religious pessimist in his day. His basic point seems unassailable though-as recognized by Sartre, tussle, Moore

  10. Oops. By Russell, Moore and many others on both sides of this discussion- no god – no objective source for morality. We all drown in that wonderful sea of perspectivalism. Until of course some wonderful übermensch deigns to rescue us – Lord help us all.

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