How Presuppositionalists Suppress The Truth In False Piety

Piety is a virtue. It describes devotion to Christ and to righteousness. It means that everything in our lives is under submission to Jesus. Yet there are times when somebody seems a little too pious, whether out of arrogance or misguided naivety. Jesus often confronted false piety, especially in Matthew 23. We might see something like that when a kid condemns people who are watching the Super Bowl. Overzealous piety will be at its worst when it serves as a grounds for an argument. I am afraid that this may be the case in presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalists will often suppress arguments for the existence of God because these arguments are not pious enough. They will dress their arguments in pious language and conclude that their methodology is to be preferred. Throughout this article, I will explain how presuppositionalists suppress the truth in false piety.

First, a summary of these positions might be in order. I am a classical apologist. The title of this website is ThereforeGodExists.com. This means that I will use reason, arguments and evidence to come to the conclusion that God exists. These arguments will often be probabilistic and inductive. On the other hand, presuppositionalists will assume that the Christian worldview is true and from there challenge anybody who holds different assumptions to account for certain aspects of the universe. They will typically say that an atheist cannot give a full account of true declaratives. But since the presuppositionalist assumes the Christian worldview, they will typically cringe in disgust at those nasty apologists who appeal to probabilism. I think that a more nuanced position is in order and if presuppositionalism is to survive rigorous philosophical critiques, it will have to go a little beyond the false piety. Let’s analyze a few of their overzealously pious arguments against classical apologetics.

Do Classical Apologists Presuppose The Lordship of Christ?

Based on the preponderance of evidence, we may conclude that God probably exists. The evidence yields the conclusion that Jesus Christ was most likely raised from the dead. Presuppositional apologists take aim that this sort of probabilistic argumentation. They will suggest that an argument that yields a probabilistic conclusion is not very forceful. In his A Critique of the Evidentialist Apologetical Method of John Warwick Montgomery Greg Bahnsen wrote, “The Bible communicates to us matters of fact; yet, contrary to Montgomery, that factuality is not to be depreciated to a mere level of probability.” The Bible tells us that we can know without a doubt that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ of all. According to Bahnsen, yielding a probabilistic conclusion will indicate that one is weak in faith. On the other hand, the presuppositional methodology begins by assuming that the Christian worldview is true. If successful, it does yield certainty. However, I am certain that this does not mean that the presuppositional method is to be preferred.

This argument is guilty of what I have named the fallacy of piety. Applying pious terms does not strengthen one’s argument. Further, Bahnsen (and most presuppositionalists by extension) is guilty of a simple category error. He is assuming that the faith of the evidentialist must be limited to the strength of the argument. Since the argument is probabilistic, it will follow that her faith is probabilistic. While there is an interplay between faith and evidence, they are not identical. In I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, the classical apologist Dr. Frank Turek said that the evidence might take you 95% of the way while faith will take you the other 5%. Similarly, William Lane Craig said in his debate with Lewis Wolpert that his faith is not ultimately based on arguments. Faith can be reinforced by arguments. But to say that because my argument is probabilistic is not to say that my faith is probabilistic. I can be absolutely certain that God raised Christ from the dead and still mount an argument that yields a probabilistic conclusion.

Imagine that an innocent man is on trial for murder. But since the man is also a trained lawyer, he decides to serve as his own attorney. Since he is innocent, he knows with absolute certainty that he did not commit the murder. Still, he will present probabilistic evidence that yields the conclusion that he is most likely innocent. He knows that he is innocent. But to convince other people, he needs to provide probabilistic arguments. There may be cases when it is appropriate for him to challenge their presuppositions and ask what other explanation could better account for the evidence. But it would still not be inappropriate to use a probabilistic argument. Similarly, while we may know that Christianity is true, we can still use probabilistic arguments without betraying that knowledge.

Is It More Pious To Use An Invalid Argument?

“I am starting with the Lordship of the Lord Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Where are you starting?” While it may seem a little crass, this is how presuppositionalists often sound. The objections that they raise to classical apologetics will often come down to the fallacy of piety. Many seem to think that because their argument is dressed in pious language that they win by default. While the classical apologist is standing on neutral ground with the atheist, the presuppositionalist standing firmly on the word of God. While the classical apologist leaves her presuppositions at the door, the presuppositionalists clings to his biblical convictions and forcefully thrusts against the atheist’s presuppositions. The problem is that all of the piety in the world will not justify an argument. An argument is assessed by its merit rather than by theological language and goals.

Is It Impious To Argue For Generic Theism?

Arguments such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument are sometimes criticized by atheists because they do not yield the conclusion that the God of the Bible exists. They only yield the conclusion that God exists. The characteristics of God as revealed by this argument are consistent with a number of monotheistic religions. Of course, the atheist objection is a little misguided because the argument was never intended to prove that the Bible is true. This is where presuppositionalists will mount another overly pious critique. Classical apologetics establishes only generic theism, whereas presuppositionalism starts with the God of the Bible. It will get you to Athens, but not to Jerusalem. Despite the obvious fallacy of piety, there is a good point somewhere here.

It is not impious to make this sort of argument. It would be impious to stop there. Cosmological arguments should be part of a cumulative case for God’s existence that conclude with a case for the resurrection, the trinity or the inspiration of Scripture. That would seem to deflect this critique. The presuppositionalist’s critique does not seem to be an objection to classical apologetics in general as much as it is an objection to the way that classical apologetics can conceivably be practiced. However, I am not really sure what it is a reference to because I cannot think of a single classical apologist who stops at generic theism.

At Its Best, Presuppositionalism Cannot Get Past Generic Theism

Presuppositionalism can definitely be an effective resource. But it has its limitations. It will take the discerning apologist to recognize when it would be more effective to flip an argument from probabilism to presuppositionalism, and vice versa. It may depend on the person or the argument. One could argue that you have to assume that God exists to serve as the foundation for moral objectivity. However, some arguments will be considerably weaker if they are flipped from probabilism to presuppositionalism. If Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism was not probabilistic, it would be significantly weaker. Many inductive arguments could be flipped, but they would be more receptive to atheist strikes. But when presuppositionalism can be used, it will have to obey the rules of simplicity. If an explanation has superfluous and overcomplicated details, a simpler explanation will be preferred. So, in accounting for morality or other factors of the universe presuppositionally, one will have to use generic theism. That is the strongest presuppositional argument available.

This is because there is a plethora of worldviews that could account for things such as morality and the beginning of the universe, including Islam. One simply does not need scriptural inerrancy or even the trinity to account for these things. Regarding the latter, one recourse would be to appeal to Perfect Being Theology and say that the only God that is possible is a trinitarian God, because only if God is a trinity will he exhibit relational love from eternity without being dependent on his creation. Yet even if we grant that argument, that still does not give us Christianity. It only gives us the trinity as a necessary precondition to morality, rationality, the universe, etc. There could conceivably be a non-Christian, trinitarian religion. That very possibility by itself will deflect presuppositionalism. We have established that the Christian worldview is not a necessary ontological or epistemological preconditions to any of the named factors.

Reasoning With The Totally Depraved

The final command that Christ gave his disciples was to preach the gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:19). Yet Scripture also tells us that to the natural man, the things of God are foolishness (1st Corinthians 2:14). In context, the natural man is the one who is unsaved. So we are to preach the gospel to those who will think that it is foolishness. This seems to be an internal contradiction. If everybody to whom the gospel is preached thinks that it is foolishness, and they will not reply apart from God’s grace, then why should we bother making an argument or appealing to evidence? Presuppositionalists will raise this challenge against classical apologetics, not knowing that it is as significant of a challenge for them, and the answer for both of us will inevitably be the same.

God uses means to accomplish his ends. In this case, the mechanism that he uses is our preaching. As the classical apologist mounts her argument, she is praying that God will be merciful to the unbelievers who hear her, softening their heart and drawing them to repentance. The answer to this challenge will be the same whether you are a presuppositionalist or a classical apologist. When we reason with the unbeliever, we are not hoping that we will make such a sound point that they finally have an epiphany. We are praying that God will open their mind to hear the truth.

When Paul says that he is fool for Christ’s sake, I do not think that he is speaking literally. When he says that he uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, it is incomprehensible that he would be saying that the gospel is literally foolish. If it were foolish, then it ought not be believed. He is talking about the perspective that unregenerate have of the gospel. Even if we use reasonable arguments, they will always think that it is foolish because of the theological implications. The theological implications of a reasonable argument will motivate them to dismiss the argument, saying that it is foolish. In exactly the same way, the unregenerate man will not be able to examine his presuppositions because of the theological implications. Examining his presuppositions will mean doing the unthinkable – submitting to Christ. Either way, the problem of noetic effect is identical for the classicalist and the presuppositionalist. The solution – God’s grace – is exactly the same for both of us as well.

Presuppositionalism Assumes That Coherence Equals Truth

Recall again what presuppositionalism is. It says that the Christian worldview is a necessary precondition to understanding reality. If the Christian worldview can account for the existence of the universe, rationality, morality, and every other factor, that will establish only that Christianity is internally coherent. But is internal coherence really enough? It could be that a worldview is both [1] internally consistent and [2] false. This means that even if the presuppositional argument works, it may still be the case that Christianity is false.

In fact, we can conceive of a worldview that is both coherent and false. I do not even need to talk about world religions that exist in the actual world, because doubtless, everybody has a few objections to other religions that you will think falsify it. You only need to imagine a possible religion that is coherent. Add all of the elements that you need, including the trinity or an atonement for sin. But this religion is just a figment of your imagination and is not actually true. Yet this vague, generic trinitarian religion could account for the universe, rationality and morality.

The only possible way out of this problem will be for the presuppositionalist to say that it is absolutely logically impossible for any false worldview to be coherent. But that seems absolutely absurd and the person who makes that claim will bear a heavy burden of proof. Notice that this problem goes beyond finding a little contradiction in the Qur’an. It will mean establishing as a logical principle the idea that it is impossible for any false worldview to be coherent. As a logical principle, I just do not see any reason for this to be the case. Truth and coherence do not necessarily need to correspond. Think of the controversial theory of dark matter. Scientists believe it because it is coherent and seems to account for the data. But the fact that it is coherent does not mean it is true (I am not making an argument against dark matter). An explanation could account for all of the data and still be false.

Christianity could account for all of the data and still be false. There may be a false worldview out there that coherently accounts for all of the data. There does not seem to be any reason to think that nothing else could possibly account for the universe. Yet the presuppositional argument is precisely that Christianity needs to be assumed to account for all of the data. But an apologist for a coherent but false religion could mount an identical argument. It will therefore follow that Christianity does not need to be true for presuppositionalism to work. Even if we grant the presuppositional argument, Christianity may still be false. It is therefore not a valid apologetic methodology.

How Presuppositionalists Suppress The Truth In False Piety

The major concern that I have about presuppositionalism is that it is wrapped in false piety. Logic and reason are replaced by flowery jargon. That establishes a bad precedent. An argument cannot be justified or dismissed based on whether the argument is pious or decorated in pious language. Just because someone says, “I am starting with the Lordship of the Lord Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior,” does not mean that his methodology is to be preferred. In summary, we have learned:
‌• Classical apologists can personally have certainty even if their arguments are probabilistic
‌• There is nothing meritorious about using a bad argument dressed in pious language
‌• It is not impious to argue for generic theism. It is impious to stop there
‌• Presuppositionalism cannot get past generic theism. The Christian worldview would be superfluous
‌• The classical apologist and the presuppositionalist resolve the problem of total depravity in the same way
‌• Saying that the Christian worldview can explain the universe does not mean that it is true
‌• Therefore even if presuppositionalism works, Christianity could still be false

Recommended Reading:
Greg Bahnsen, John Warwick Montgomery, and Evidential Apologetics
Is The Minimal Facts Argument Impious?
Against Presuppositional Apologetics

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