Is Certainty of God A Precondition To Knowledge? A Response To Presuppositionalism

know 1Many classical apologists will be repelled by the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God because it is usually associated closely with presuppositionalism. The argument suggests that in order to make sense of the utility of reason and logic, one must first presuppose the existence of God. The strength of the argument is in the fact that atheism really does lack an ontological foundation for true declaratives. However, to the detriment of the argument, presuppositionalists will often frame it improperly. It becomes significantly weaker when it becomes epistemological rather than ontological. God is a precondition for knowledge and truth. But is certainty of God a precondition to knowledge? Certainly not.

know 2The difference between the epistemological and ontological element is subtle, but it is important to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this argument. One may point out, “God is a necessary precondition to truth” and yet atheists (who do not believe in God) will still have access to these truths. They would merely be inconsistent. In contrast, when one begins to say, “You must first believe in God to have access to these truths” then you wander into the far less defensible epistemological element of the argument. So, is certainty of God a precondition to knowledge?

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Some People Are Not Totally Certain

Careful readers will have noted that I have been using the word certainty in a somewhat flawed way throughout this article. I am using it as though it indicates absolute certainty and one-hundred percent confidence. The reason that I am doing this is that contemporary presuppositional apologists will use certainty in this manner. I am assessing their conception of certainty about the existence of God. It does not seem to stand up to serious scrutiny, because nobody has absolute certainty about their faith. Certainty often comes on a sliding scale.

know 4This should not be a difficult concept to grasp. Anybody who has counseled struggling Christians know that people are often burdened with doubt. People wonder about whether they can trust the Bible and God’s promises. That is not to say that doubt is okay. God is worthy of our trust and absolute certainty. But we often fail him and sin against him by doubting his promises and his word. However, the very fact that doubt exists among born again, believing Christians suggests that we are not absolutely certain about everything. If you are vulnerable to a moment or a passing second of doubt, then you do not have absolute certainty either. For anybody to tell themselves that they are not vulnerable to a moment of doubt is to be in denial.

In fact, you can probably think of something that you would find that would strengthen your faith. Imagine that you were to see the Second Coming, to witness it with your own eyes. You would be filled with joy and in that moment, your faith would be more firm than it ever has in your entire life. Similarly, if you were to witness a miracle, your faith would be enhanced. There are also examples that you have probably experienced in real life. Think of your favorite argument for the existence of God. Upon learning that argument, your faith was strengthened and you became more confident in the truth claims of Christianity. But that entails that you do not have absolute, 100% certainty. One cannot improve upon absolute certainty. So, is certainty of God a precondition to knowledge? If that were the case, many faithful Christians would not have any knowledge.

You Are More Certain of Some Things Than You Are of God’s Existence

We have seen that there are varying degrees of certainty. It is not static. Beyond that, there are examples of things of which people are more certain than they are of the existence of God. This is because these things truly are a precondition for knowledge. In particular, everybody who possesses self-awareness is more certain about their own existence than they are about the existence of God. As Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” If I am thinking, I must exist, because who is there to do the thinking? This means that everything that everything that I do and think presupposes that I exist. If I have the thought, “God exists,” I have first presupposed my own existence to have that thought. (Again, though, the existence of God is necessary for me to exist or utilize logic.) As RC Sproul pointed out in his book Classical Apologetics, one cannot epistemologically start beyond the self.

Interestingly, Bertrand Russell actually responded to the idea that “I think, therefore I am” by suggesting that it is guilty of circular reasoning. He said that “I think” presupposes “I am.” This, he suggested, is to assume one’s own conclusion. The problem is that all Russell has done is to complain about the nature of a deductive argument. In a deductive argument, the conclusion is implicit in the premise waiting to be derived by the rules of logical inference. In a stroke of irony, by suggesting that “I am” is implicit in “I think,” Russell has conceded the argument! I think, therefore I am.

What does that imply? Well, first if we are more certain about our own existence than about the existence of God, it follows that nobody is absolutely certain that God exists. You cannot be more certain about proposition X than you are of proposition Y if you are 100% certain of Y. Therefore, nobody is 100% certain of X. We all have doubts. That is integral to our fallen and sinful human nature. Is certainty of God a precondition to knowledge? I do not think so. Rather, one must first have knowledge and self-awareness before they can even believe in God.

What About Romans 1:20?

Integral to this form of presuppositional apologetics is the idea that certainty about the existence of God is innate. Everybody knows that God exists because God has implanted that knowledge in the human mind. Therefore, anybody who claims to be an atheist must be deceiving themselves. They are not really atheists. They already believe in God’s existence. This hangs upon Romans 1:20, which reads, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

The careful reader will probably have noticed that the presuppositionalist seems to have extracted far too much from the text. To suggest that this passage suggests that we have innate knowledge of God is to perform eisegesis. It is to read something into the text that it does not say. Instead, it says that God’s eternal power and divine nature have been seen in the natural world. People can look to the natural world and conclude on that basis that God exists. Anybody who asks themselves, “Why does anything at all exist?” is instantly confronted with God’s existence. But if you try to find a trace of the idea that there is some sort of innate certainty of God on the basis of this passage, you will come up lacking.

Further, this passage does not establish that everybody is absolutely certain of the existence of God. It establishes only that we know that God exists on the basis of the natural world. But knowledge is often burdened by doubt and sin. This is where it might be appropriate to point out the difference between epistemic certainty and ontological certainty. One has epistemic certainty if they have good reasons for believing that something is true. For example, I might believe that the speed limit is 35 MPH because I saw a posted sign. I have epistemic certainty. However, I could still be wrong. A council could have met and changed the speed limit as I am writing this very sentence. The sign could be in error or outdated. That is a lingering doubt. So while I possess epistemic certainty, I do not have ontological certainty. Ontological certainty is like the certainty that God has. When God is certain, he cannot be wrong. But even when we are certain, there is still a mild possibility that we could be wrong.

Third, there is a psychological phenomenon known as subliminal knowledge. There are many things that we know but are stored so deep in our subconscious that we do not always have access to them. I do not remember the name of my second grade teacher. I know it, but I cannot remember it. Tomorrow, it may just come to me. It is subliminal. Perhaps atheists have subliminal knowledge of the existence of God. Perhaps that is how we can best understand when Paul said men have suppressed the knowledge of God (Romans 1:18). With all of that in mind, is certainty of God a precondition to knowledge? I do not think that Romans 1:20 offers any grounds for thinking that.

The Fear of The Lord Is The Beginning of Knowledge…

Presuppositionalists will usually appeal to Proverbs 1:7, which reads, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” They take this to be a biblical vindication of their argument. It specifically addresses how people acquire knowledge. Their presentation of the Transcendental Argument is about epistemology, which is precisely what I am indicting in this article. So does Proverbs 1:7 vindicate presuppositionalism? Is certainty a precondition to knowledge? I do not think that Proverbs 1:7 provides any basis for thinking that.

First, presuppositionalism indicates that one must first believe that God exists to have access to true declaratives. Proverbs 1:7 says that the fear of the Lord is the precondition to wisdom. Unless they are going to suggest that everybody fears the Lord, I do not think that this is a relevant proof-text. After all, the concept of fearing the Lord is usually related to reverence and esteeming God (not being terrorized). Atheists do not revere or esteem God. They might have subliminal knowledge of him, but they do not revere him. They do not fear the Lord.

Second, the presuppositional argument is related to epistemology. It is related to how we come to know certain truths. Proverbs 1:7 is specifically addressing wisdom. An individual can acquire a host of degrees and still be unwise. Many people will grow in knowledge but not in wisdom because they do not fear the Lord. Now, I realize that the translation uses the word “knowledge.” But it is obviously referring to wisdom. This is wisdom literature, and in the other half of the verse (which communicates the same truth negatively as a poetic, literary device), it reads, “Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Further, the fact that fearing the Lord is a precondition to this knowledge indicates that it is probably a reference to wisdom. So, is certainty a precondition to knowledge? You cannot draw that interpretation from Proverbs 1:7.

Is Certainty of God A Precondition To Knowledge?

If you are a presuppositionalists, all of this information will probably seem devastating. But it should not. There are still ways for you to defend the Transcendental Argument. You need only to drop the epistemological aspect of it and it will instantly become far more defensible. If you would like to retain the presuppositional element, you can still do that. You need only argue that one must first presuppose the existence of God to make sense of a world in which there are true declaratives. But as it is often presented, the presuppositional method is quite defeasible because it relies so heavily on the idea that one must know that God exists to have access to truth claims.

As we have seen throughout this article, that is just not the case. Many Christians are not even absolutely certain that God exists. Certainty and uncertainty are not black and white. There is a sliding scale that many people, yourself including, will find themselves. This is especially evident when you begin to consider that there are certain things of which you are more certain, such as your own existence. Doubt always creeps in. We are sinful creatures. For us to suggest that we must have ontological certainty is almost like the Pelagian doctrine of sinless perfection.

All of this is not to say that we cannot believe in God’s promises. This article should not be taken as a treatise of ignorance of uncertainty. It is not an argument for relativism or agnosticism. It is not an exercise in post-modern theology. Doubt and uncertainty are not virtues. They are sinful. But at the same time, many Christians will swing between doubt and great faith. Some might recall moments of weak faith. Others may have endured a trauma and asked themselves how a loving God could really allow them to go through it. You may have read a book by a liberal theologian and had your faith challenged. Certainty is wonderful. But it is difficult to attain and hold on to. Apart from the grace of God, none of us would have any measure of certainty. But that does not mean that certainty about the existence of God is a precondition to knowledge.

If you would like to read similar content, check out my series on presuppositional apologetics.

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