How Howe Misunderstands Presuppositionalism

Dr. Richard Howe, professor at Southern Evangelical Seminary, was interviewed in a video posted on April 9, 2020, to YouTube under the title “A Sound Refutation of Presuppositionalism with Dr. Richard Howe” (here).  This is my response in defense of Presuppositionalism.  (Quotes from Howe are in italics.)

Summary:  Howe claims that the Presuppositional approach is fideistic, rejecting the appropriateness of giving arguments for God’s existence; but Presuppositionalists offer arguments anyway, in which case they are acting like Classical apologists.  My response is that Presuppositionalists, particularly the two main ones that Howe discusses, Van Til and Bahnsen, very clearly do not reject giving arguments for God’s existence.  The propriety of giving an argument for God’s existence is not the issue between the Presuppositional approach and Classical approach.  Howe never shows an awareness of the real complaint of Van Til and Bahnsen against the Classical view, which is that the Aristotelian view of the Unmoved Mover, knowledge, and causality that are adopted by Aquinas is contrary to the Christian view of God, knowledge, and causality.  The problem is not that Aquinas offered arguments for God’s existence, or that he appealed to causality to prove God’s existence, but that he offered faulty arguments.

Howe claims that Van Til’s view is this:  “Any argument for the existence of God that concludes, “God,” cannot be the God of Christianity because the God of Christianity, in his [Van Til’s] estimation, has to be the presupposition of all argument.”   

Where does Van Til say, “Any argument for the existence of God that concludes, ‘God,’ cannot be the God of Christianity”?  Nowhere.  We have to cut Howe a little slack because he is being interviewed without notes, so we can’t expect him to produce exact quotes.  But this also means that no one should use this interview as a definitive refutation of presuppositionalism.  That would require the academic rigor of citations and exact quotes with contextual analysis of the author’s meaning.

Usually, Van Til’s critics claim that Van Til requires that arguments for God’s existence begin with God’s existence as a premise.  Van Til nowhere says that, but his critics assume that that’s what “presuppose” means.  But here, Howe says that Van Til claimed that arguments cannot conclude with God’s existence.  He is claiming that Van Til taught fideism – that no one should argue for God’s existence.  A little later in the interview, he describes the dispute between Classical and Presuppositional approaches as “a debate over the propriety of giving arguments and evidence primarily for God’s existence.”

There is no fair way to read Van Til’s writings and conclude that he promotes fideism.  Here is how Van Til himself characterizes the nature of a proper argument for the existence of God:

If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. 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.[1]

Notice that the argument does not begin with “God exists” but with any knowledge claim about our finite universe.  From there the argument presents what must be true about the nature of reality in order to make that fact, and all facts in general, intelligible to us.  This argument involves showing how non-Christian views of reality are inconsistent with an intelligible universe, and that the Christian view of reality, particularly the type of God described in the Bible, is necessary in order for the universe to be intelligible.  This method of “implication into the truth of God” amounts to concluding “God.”  Van Til further elucidates how this argument works, having a negative aspect, a reductio ad absurdum of unbelief, and then a positive aspect in which God is shown to provide the necessary conditions for an intelligible world:

The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the “facts” are not facts and the “laws” are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do “facts” and “laws” appear intelligible.[2]

Here are two more quotes to prove that Van Til does not reject arguing for the existence of God:

[A]ll the theistic arguments should really be taken together and reduced to the one argument of the possibility of human predication.[3]

[T]he Reformed apologist maintains that there is an absolutely valid argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christian theism. He cannot do less without virtually admitting that God’s revelation to man is not clear.[4]

In his book, Van Til’s Apologetic, Greg Bahnsen comments, “Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic is, as anyone can see from the above, the diametric opposite of fideism.”[5]  Bahnsen then continues for several pages supporting this claim.

Continuing with his claim that Presuppositionalists reject proving God’s existence, Howe says,

The assumption or the presupposition of God is the necessary condition for all knowledge. Whereas the Classical Approach is going to say that there are truths about reality that normal humans beings with the faculties that God has created us with cannot fail to know, and from those truths, we can construct a demonstrable argument for the existence of God.

In the first sentence, Howe apparently means that Presuppositionalists teach that unless people consciously assume the existence of God, then they have no knowledge, and thus the Christian has no basis for presenting an argument for God’s existence to the unbeliever.  This is in contrast with the Classical position, which allows for non-Christians to have knowledge, which serves as a basis for arguing for God’s existence.  That Van Til claims that unbelievers can’t know anything is a charge that I answered recently in a review of J.V. Fesko’s book and a review of Keith Mathison’s article.  The only sense in which Van Til says that unbelievers have no knowledge is in the sense that, by not presupposing God, the unbeliever’s knowledge is put in a false context which, if true, would destroy the possibility of knowledge.  Unbelievers know, for example, that flowers are in the field; but understanding those flowers purely as products of random collisions of matter rather than creations of God gives a false aspect to the knowledge; and if the unbeliever’s materialism were really true, knowledge of those flowers, which involves associating the abstract concept of a flower with a particular sense experience, would not be possible because abstract universals are excluded by materialism.

Howe is correct that a distinction can be made between, as he puts it, “the presupposition of the truth of Christianity is the precondition of knowledge” and “the truth of Christianity is the precondition of knowledge.”  The presupposition of the Christian God is necessary as part of a philosophical explanation of how knowledge is possible.  The unbeliever rejects the Christian view of God and therefore rejects this explanation of knowledge.  On the other hand, “the necessary condition for all knowledge” is the existence of the Christian God.   Independent of what anyone professes about God, God still exists, and that makes human knowledge possible.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Van Til and Bahnsen affirm that the assumption of God is the precondition for knowledge.  Since non-Christians do possess knowledge about many things and usually assume many things about the world that can only make sense if God exists, such as cause-and-effect relationships and absolute morality, this knowledge is evidence that deep in their consciousness, non-Christians do know the true God.  In many ways, they act on the assumption of God’s existence, even though they suppress that truth and refuse to openly acknowledge the true God, as Romans 1 teaches.  Bahnsen explored this issue in his doctoral dissertation on self-deception.[6]  Note that affirming this sense of the necessity of presupposing God is not a basis for saying that unbelievers don’t know anything – just the opposite.  It means that they do have accurate ideas about the world to some extent, and that is based on the innate knowledge of God that they inescapably possess. This inescapable knowledge serves as the basis for presenting arguments to the unbeliever that God exists.

While mischaracterizing the presuppositional view, Howe also fails to explain Van Til’s complaint against the Classical approach on the matter of common-ground knowledge with unbelievers.  Van Til’s complaint is that the Classical approach regards these truths of experience upon which an argument for God’s existence can be built as an area of neutrality between the non-Christian and Christian thought.  Specifically with respect to Aquinas’s Aristotelianism, Van Til complained that what Aristotle meant by the Unmoved Mover and how causality was explained by Aristotle in terms of the Unmoved Mover is different from the Christian view of God and causality, yet Aquinas tried to equate the two. As Van Til observes, “So then Thomas thinks that he has the right to argue from effect to cause without first inquiring into the differences in meaning between the idea of cause when used by Christians and the idea of cause when used by those who do not take the Christian position.”[7] The Unmoved Mover of Aristotle is an inert, lifeless, blank unity.  The ultimate, efficient cause of change is actually matter, not the Unmoved Mover, which is the source of unity in the midst of change.  The Unmoved Mover could not choose to cause things in the material world, because it is an abstract principle, not a person.  As Van Til puts it, Aquinas’s argument for God’s existence “proves the existence of Aristotle’s god, a god who did not create the world, who does not know the world, who does not know ‘himself’ because ‘he’ is no self.  ‘He’ is an ‘it,’ an abstract principle of all-absorbing rationality.”[8]

In contrast to the Classical approach, the Presuppositional approach uses facts of common experience to prove that the God of the Bible must exist in order for those facts to be intelligible.  This approach demonstrates that there is no neutral ground between Christian belief and unbelief; rather, all ground is God’s ground.  Furthermore, the common experience doesn’t have to be one particular knowledge claim that all people are found to make, like that there is a cause-and-effect relationships in the world.  After all, there have been a few people who have denied causality.  Any knowledge claim will suffice as the beginning of a transcendental argument.  The unbeliever can even make a false knowledge claim that the Christian can use as the beginning point for a proof for the existence of God.  The Presuppositional claim is that predication requires the existence of God, so as long as the unbeliever predicates about something, even if the truth value of the predication is false, he is still predicating.  And the possibility of predicating, even a false statement like “God does not exist,” requires the existence of God.[9]

The interviewer then throws a giant wrench into Howe’s fideism charge by observing that advocates of presuppositionalism point to Greg Bahnsen’s debates where he destroyed his opponent’s arguments, and they claim that that is why it is the best method.  Howe responds by basically saying, yes, but they’re being inconsistent:

I would allege is that whenever the presupposionalist actually starts to construct an argument, I have never seen them fail to do exactly what the Classical method does.

Since Howe doesn’t know what Van Til’s real criticism of Aquinas was, he has no basis for distinguishing between doing things the Presuppositional way from doing things the Classical way.  Howe is making the same kind of mistake as John Frame and J.V. Fesko when they claim that any mention causation or order in the material world in an argument for God’s existence amounts to “Classical Apologetics.”[10]  Arguing for God’s existence, including using causality to argue for God’s existence, is not what Van Til rejected in Classical apologetics.

Howe then comments on the Sproul/Bahnsen debate:

Here is what I think is the perennial mistake of all of the presuppositionalists that I have read. . . .   This particular nuanced debate came out in RC Sproul’s debate with Bahnsen.  Bahnsen: ‘The assumption of God is the precondition of knowledge.’  Van Til – within one paragraph he switches from ‘the presupposition of the truth of Christianity is the precondition of knowledge’ to ‘the truth of Christianity is the precondition of knowledge.’  Well, the latter I wouldn’t disagree with.  It’s exactly what the Classical model would affirm.  God obviously is the precondition. . . .  Both the classical and presuppositional approach would agree that God is the precondition of knowledge because He’s the creator, that doesn’t distinguish the two models. . . . What distinguishes the two models is the epistemological point, that the assumption of God is the precondition of knowledge.

While Aquinas wanted to prove and claimed as a Christian that God created the world, he also admitted that “reason” (reasoning by Aristotle’s principles) cannot prove that matter is not eternal: “as arguments, they presuppose the eternity of motion, which Catholics consider to be false.”[11]  A “creation” in which matter is eternal is very different from a creation that comes from nothing by the will of God who alone is eternal, especially when the Unmoved Mover is merely an impersonal abstraction that could not create anything.  So there are problems even with the similarity of God creating our faculties of knowledge and the objects of knowledge between the Classical and Presuppositional positions.

Here is the part in the Bahnsen/Sproul debate that Howe is referring to in this transcript at page 35 (at 17:44-51 in this audio):  “That’s the transcendental argument, saying that the precondition of intelligibility and knowledge is already… the existence of God.”  Bahnsen says “the existence of God,” yet Howe thinks he said “the assumption of God.”

What Bahnsen is talking about is not clear from the discussion without knowledge of more detailed criticisms in other places that Bahnsen and Van Til made concerning the epistemology of Aquinas and some other Christian apologists.  The criticism is that Thomas Aquinas and some other apologists regard our knowledge of the material world as more certain than knowledge of God.  While our knowledge that say, a tree is in the yard, is considered nearly certain, the existence of God, as a more remote cause of the material world, is a knowledge that is much less probably true and much less certain than our immediate sense experience of the material world.  Because of Aquinas’s Aristotelian empiricism that all knowledge begins with sensation, he says concerning proof for the existence of God that the “effect is better known to us than its cause.”[12]  The facts of our immediate, earthly environment are known better to us than God is known as the remote cause of the universe.  Aquinas explains that through nature, we know God “in a general and confused way. . . .  This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching.”[13] This approach is also seen in Aquinas’s comments on “remotion”:

Now, in considering the divine substance, we should especially make use of the method of remotion.  For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is. . . .  [By remotion] we approach nearer to a knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him.[14]

So we have positive knowledge of created things through sense experience, but we can only know God through “reason” by stripping away all those positive aspects of our knowledge.  This leaves us with a concept of God without any content:  “God is a supremely simple form, as was shown above (Question [3], Article [7]). . . . Reason cannot reach up to simple form, so as to know ‘what it is;’ but it can know “whether it is.”[15]  All our rich knowledge of the material world fades into an abstract blank when we seek to know God through nature, on the Thomistic view.

Bahnsen’s point in the discussion with Sproul is that on the presuppositional view, God’s existence is certain because predication, whether it concerns mathematics or empirical science, requires the existence of God.  And more precisely, the God that is necessary for the possibility of predication is necessary as more than just some first cause that gets everything moving.  God must be an absolute Person who created everything out of nothing according to His eternal plan for every detail of the world.   The unity and diversity of our world must have its origin in a God who is the ultimate one and many, a Mind who has preinterpreted all facts from all eternity.

I agree that both schools of apologetics relate God’s existence to knowledge, so there is a sense in which both approaches are claiming that God is the precondition of knowledge.  But there are significant differences in the how the two approaches relate God and knowledge, and the difference is not captured by Howe’s characterization of the Presuppositional view as “the assumption of God is the precondition of knowledge” in distinction from “the existence of God is the precondition of knowledge.” What Howe fails to state anywhere in this supposed refutation of presuppositionalism is Van Til’s primary problem with the Thomistic approach.  The problem is how Aquinas tries to equate Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover with the Christian God, even though the two are irreconcilable in many ways.  The god that Aristotle presupposes undermines the possibility of knowledge.  His god is an impersonal principle, not a person.  His god does not have knowledge of anything, especially knowledge of the world.  His god did not create the world; rather, matter is eternal.  Since there is no creation in this view, this type of god cannot be the basis of a Creator/creature distinction as taught in the Bible.

In the view of Aristotle, Plato, and many other Greeks, there are two, independent, eternal sources of reality:  matter and form.  Form is the source of unity for the world, and matter is the source of diversity.  They intermingle in the earthly realm to produce the intelligible world with both diversity and unity.  But pure Form is a completely empty principle of unity, and pure Matter is chaos, so an abstract blank and chaos, two things without rational content and which exclude each other in principle, supposedly produce the intelligible world.

Aquinas wants to convince us to equate Aristotle’s pure Form with the God of Christianity.   Aquinas describes God as a “supremely simple form.”[16]  But the God of Christianity is not Pure Form.  He is Triune, so He is not a pure blank.  He has knowledge with content.  Indeed, He is the source of all the diversity in the world.  He eternally planned every detail of it.  Aristotle’s god could do no such thing as a Pure Form.  Aristotle’s god could not act to do anything, because any change would destroy his status as Pure Form.  (Thomists call God “pure act” but they define that to mean that God has no potential to change, so “pure act” amounts to “pure impotence.”)  Aristotle’s god must remain an eternally lifeless, changeless, impersonal blank.  Sure, Aquinas talks about God creating matter because the God of the Bible obviously does, and Aquinas wants to defend the existence of the God of the Bible, but he fails to recognize that Aristotle’s god could not have created matter.  He is logically compelled to choose between the Aristotle’s impersonal Pure Form and the God of the Bible, but Aquinas tries ride both horses going in opposite directions.  It’s painful to think about.

Howe says:

What I deny is that the God that is delivered by this Classical method of Aquinas, I deny the fact that the god that it gives us is some kind of minimal theism as it is often described in some of the presuppositionalist literature. It’s simplicity, it’s immutability, it’s immateriality, it’s all good, omnipotence.  All of the classical attributes of God cascade inexorably from this simple demonstration of God’s existence; and then the sort-of fountain head of the attributes would be simplicity.  And then once simplicity is explained, all of the other attributes of God follow inevitably and unavoidably.

While this list of attributes can be applied to the biblical God, the similarity with Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is superficial.  It amounts to the fallacy of equivocation.  When God’s simplicity is defined in terms of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, it means that God is a blank – an empty, lifeless, static concept, the pure Form of Greek philosophy rather than the personal, living and active Triune God of Christianity.  Aristotle’s god knows nothing and cannot be known except as negation of anything positive, which amounts to knowing nothing about Aristotle’s god.  As Van Til puts it, “Aristotle’s man knows nothing of Aristotle’s God as Aristotle’s God knows nothing of Aristotle’s man.”[17]

Howe relates a conversation that he had with a presuppositionalist:

I began to argue as a presuppositionalist Muslim.  And everything this Christian said to me, I said, ‘The problem is you’re not presupposing the self-authenticating, infallible word of the Koran.’ . . . I used all the language that I could think of of the presuppositionalist, except rather than saying ‘Christian’ or saying ‘Bible,’ I said ‘Muslim’ and I said ‘Koran’ in order to try to get him to see that as far as the template of what you are doing, it can’t adjudicate different religions, each of which might make the same presuppositionalist claim.

This is a common misconception – that Presuppositionalism is a bald appeal to divine authority, without any content required of that authority.  But there is more to Presuppositionalism than just presupposing any sort of being with the name “God” as a person’s ultimate authority. Van Til argues that a certain kind of god must be presupposed in order to account for the intelligibility of the world.  He uses a few different terms to describe the nature that God must have:  “the self-contained God,” “the self-sufficient God,” “the originality of God,” “the absolute God,” “the concrete universal,” “the Eternal One and Many,” and a few others.[18]  The basic requirement is that God be the source of all unity and diversity, which involves all concepts (universals) being related to all individual facts (diversity) in terms of God’s eternal plan for the world.

Regarding Islam specifically, on the presuppositionalist view, the Christian has the option of taking two approaches.  One approach is to find something about the Islamic view of God that is contrary to a being who is a concrete universal.  That would be a refutation in terms of a transcendental argument.  The second is to assume, at least for the sake of the argument, that Islam meets the first test and treat Islam as a Christian heresy, pointing out where Islam contradicts the previous revelation of the Bible.  See my essay, “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument,” for more on this issue.[19]

Howe mentions at the end of the interview:

Knowledge isn’t even an epistemological category anyway in the first place.  Knowledge in Aristotle and Aquinas is metaphysical.  It is the actual formal unity of intellect and reality, where the knower actually becomes the thing known at a formal metaphysical level, whatever in the world that means.  Well, that’s only coherent given the Aristotelian metaphysics with the augmentation that Aquinas goes on to make.

Howe’s understanding of Aristotelian epistemology is correct, but its monist implications are incompatible with Christian theism.  Van Til quotes Aristotle saying, “Actual knowledge is identical with its object of knowledge. . .  When the mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more:  this alone is immortal and eternal.”[20] Van Til points out that, putting this view in Christian language, this means that “To the extent that man knows God from knowing himself he must also be God.”[21]  This view of knowledge wipes out the Creator-creature distinction.  Rather than man’s consciousness receiving revelation from his Creator, man’s consciousness is divine.

Conclusion:  By promoting strawman criticisms of Van Til, Dr. Howe is doing the Christian apologetic community a disservice.  As a seasoned professor dedicated to understanding and defending Thomism, Dr. Howe certainly has a well-informed knowledge of the positions of Aquinas that Van Til actually criticizes.  If he applied himself to responding to those criticisms rather than the strawman arguments that he promotes in this interview,  the debate between the two schools would be more productive.

Postscript:  Dr. Howe was kind enough to further explain some of his positions in an email exchange that we had a few weeks ago.  I take responsibilty for any misunderstandings of his views that I present here.

____________________________________________________________

[1]  Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.201.

[2]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 117.

[3]  Van Til,  An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 102.

[4]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955), p. 121

[5]  Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic:  Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P&R Publishing, 1998), p. 74 (emphasis in the original).

[6]  Gregory Lyle Bahnsen, “A conditional resolution of the apparent paradox of self-deception,” http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll3/id/388025.  For the application to Van Til, see his essay, “Van Til and Self-Deception, http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa191.htm.

[7]  Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 173.

[8]  Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 302.

[9]  Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. xii.  Also, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p.13.

[10]  For my comments on Frame’s view, see http://christianciv.com/blog/index.php/2015/09/20/review_of_frames_apologetics/.  For my comments on Fesko’s view, see http://christianciv.com/blog/index.php/2019/07/14/common-notion-confusion-part-3/.

[11]  Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1:13.29-30.

[12]  Summa Theologica, 1a.2.2.

[13]  Summa Theologica, 1a.2.1.

[14]  Summa Contra Gentiles, 1:14.2.

[15]  Summa Theologica, 1a.12.12.

[16]  Summa Theologica 1a.3.4.

[17]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955), p. 138.

[18]  See my essay, “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument,” pp. 35-36, http://www.christianciv.com/The_Scope_and_Limits_of_VTAG.pdf.

[19]  Ibid., pp. 57-58.

[20]  Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 87, quoting Aristotle’s De Anima.

[21]  Ibid., emphasis in original.

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4 Responses to How Howe Misunderstands Presuppositionalism

  1. Matthew Doyle says:

    What did Howe specifically say you “misunderstood” of his views in your article?

  2. Mike Warren says:

    Actually, I thought that I might be misunderstanding him, but in fact, I had understood him correctly. I asked him, “In the interview, you characterize Presuppositionalism as the view that ‘the assumption or the presupposition of God is the necessary condition for all knowledge.’ What do you take that phrase to mean? Are you claiming that it means that non-Christians can’t know anything because they don’t presuppose the truth of Christianity?” I thought that’s what he meant, but I wanted to make sure. He responded with a number of quotes from Van Til that purportedly showed that Van Til denied that unbelievers have knowledge. That confirmed my interpretation, although I wrote back that I disagreed with his interpretation of Van Til.

    On the other hand, after I posted this article, he wrote me to deny that he thinks that Van Til and Bahnsen are fideists. He said that he was not able to explain his full views on the subject in the interview. I wrote back to say that given what he says in the interview, he must think that Van Til and Bahnsen were at least fideists some of the time, that is, inconsistent fideists. If rejecting arguments that conclude with “God” is not fideism, I don’t know what is.

  3. Pingback: Mid-July 2020 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

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