The Divine Energies, Divine Simplicity And Reformed Orthodoxy

Directed Study

Dr. Michael Horton

05 / 28 / 10

In this paper I will give a summary of various approaches to the Doctrine of God from the early and late (or High) periods of Reformed theology.  Specifically, I will be looking at the Reformed orthodox doctrine of Divine Simplicity, taking Calvin and Turretin as representative of the orthodox understanding of the doctrine in the early and late periods, respectively.  In the second section of my paper, I will turn to a discussion of the compatibility of the Reformed orthodox doctrine of God with the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of God, looking specifically at two characteristic Eastern beliefs; the distinction between Essence and Energies in God, and the belief that God’s Essence is “beyond being.”  Because these two beliefs are absolutely essential to the Eastern conception of God, the judgment as to whether or not they are compatible with a Reformed orthodox understanding of God will also be a judgment as to the compatibility of the two conceptions of God more broadly. Continue reading



Filed under Ancient Thought, Historical Theology, Medieval Thought, Philosophy

The Doctrine Of The Divine Energies

DR625-2 (Directed Study)

Dr. Michael Horton

12 / 18 / 09


In this paper I will examine the doctrine of the divine energies as developed by the early and later Eastern (Greek) Church Fathers.  Simply put, the divine energies are manifestations of God in the created world.  They are truly God Himself, but they are not His essence.  They are the ways in which God makes Himself known to us as created beings.  They would include concepts such as glory, power, mercy, and loving-kindness, as well as eternity and even simplicity.  All of these names or terms that we ascribe to God do not describe His essence (God as He is in Himself), but rather describe his manifold energies.  His essence remains utterly unknowable and beyond all human ability to grasp it.  This distinction between the essence and energies of God became extremely important in the later development of the Eastern (or Byzantine) Christian tradition, especially with regard to the doctrine of theosis or deification.  So important is this distinction to all of Eastern theology that modern scholars are beginning to recognize that it is one of the most important theological differences (if not the most important) that divides East and West.

This paper will be divided into two main sections.  Continue reading


Filed under Ancient Thought, Historical Theology, Philosophy

A Survey Of Exegesis Of Philippians 2:5-11 In The Patristic Period

NT515 – Philippians

Dr. Dennis Johnson

12 / 04 / 09

In this paper my plan is to briefly sketch some of the major contours of Pastristic thought with regard to the exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11.  This passage is sometimes referred to as the “kenotic hymn” because, in addition to being song-like in form, it contains the infamous statement that Christ “emptied himself” in taking on the form of a man.  The Greek word Paul uses here, ekénōse, comes from the word kenós, meaning “empty.”  This term immediately became the center of Christological debate.  How is it that Christ emptied himself?  What did he empty himself of?  If he was truly God before his incarnation, did he totally empty himself of all divinity and become merely human?  How would such an emptying even be possible, and what would it mean for divine immutability?  The simple presence of this one word within this one short epistle meant that such questions could not possibly be avoided; they must be met head on.  And they were.  The answers, however, were varied, and it took several centuries for orthodox Christology to be solidified. Continue reading


Filed under Ancient Thought, Biblical Theology, Exegesis, Historical Theology

Still Afraid of Postmodernism: A Response to James K. A. Smith

AP601 – Modern Mind

Dr. Michael Horton

05 / 15 / 09

In this paper I will examine the thesis of James K. A. Smith in his book, Who’s Afraid Of Postmodernism?, that certain trends in Postmodern thought are fundamentally compatible with (and may even be necessary for) a proper understanding of Christian orthodoxy.   My plan is to briefly summarize two primary arguments that Smith makes in support of his case, evaluating and critiquing each in turn. Continue reading

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Filed under Apologetics, Epistemology, Philosophy, Postmodern Thought

Boethius And The False Consolation Of Philosophy

CH602 – Medieval Church & Reformation

Dr. R. Scott Clark

04 / 03 / 09


My project in this paper is to examine Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to determine what Boethius was attempting to communicate to his audience about Philosophy itself.  The single most perplexing issue to arise in Boethian studies since at least the early medieval period has been the question of why Boethius, a Christian who had written several theological treatises defending orthodox Christian doctrine, chose in his final days to console himself not with Christian revelation, but with Neo-Platonic philosophy.  Many supposed that Boethius was not really a Christian and that the author of the Consolation could not have been the same man who wrote the theological treatises.  More recent scholarship has dispelled this notion.  Thus the question remains the same, but the issue now becomes an attempt at reconciliation between the catholic Christian Boethius of the treatises and the Neo-Platonist Boethius of the Consolation. Continue reading

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Filed under Church History, Historical Theology, Medieval Thought, Philosophy

How Then Shall We Do Apologetics?

ST501 – Christian Mind

Dr. Michael S. Horton

12 / 05 / 08


(1) You can believe in God without any evidence.  (2) Without God, you can’t know anything at all.  These are perhaps the most controversial Christian claims of the 20th century.  Both were made by Christian apologists.  The first is the claim of Reformed Epistemology and its most prominent advocate, Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame.  The second is the claim of Presuppositionalism, pioneered by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary.  These two approaches to apologetics have many similarities, both in theory and practice.  In this paper, my aim is three-fold.  First, I will compare and contrast these two apologetic schools and offer suggestions as to how they might work together to strengthen one another.  Second, I will offer a critique of Presuppositionalism from the perspective of Reformed Epistemology, which I have playfully dubbed the “Transcendental Argument against Presuppositionalism.”  The final section of the paper will be devoted to a brief interaction between a synthesized Presuppositional-Reformed Epistemology method and the remaining heavy hitters in the Apologetic world; Classical Apologetics and Evidentialism.  My hope is to show that there is actually a great deal of consensus between the modern representatives of these other two schools and my proposed “middle way”, and that once the epistemological insights of both Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology are used as our apologetic grounding, we will find ourselves free to adapt our apologetic method to particular situations.  We move, then, to the first task of compare and contrast.

Presuppostional Apologetics

First, I should make clear an assumption of this paper.  For the primary exposition of what the Presuppositional method is, I will be relying almost exclusively on one of Van Til’s most prominent disciples, Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen.  My un-argued-for assumption will be that Bahnsen represents the best and most persuasive version of Presuppositionalism that almost remains the most true to Van Til.  So then, what is Presuppositionalism?

The two pillars of Presuppostional thought are “the myth of neutrality” and the necessity of presupposing God as the precondition for intelligibility.  Says Bahnsen:

The unbeliever will challenge you to build your case for God on neutral ground, without building on your foundation in God.  Be warned!  If you don’t start with God as your basic assumption, you can’t prove anything.  The assumption of God’s existence is essential to all reasoning.[1]

Everyone has presuppositions, and everyone reasons from them to conclusions.  So there can really be no such thing as a neutral, unbiased perspective, the “view from nowhere.”  Bahnsen’s warning is meant to show that when an unbeliever says that we all ought to be “neutral” and without any presuppositions in our reasoning, what he is actually doing is being biased towards his own hidden presuppositions and against the presuppositions of the believer, namely, the existence of God.  In other words, one way of understanding the Presuppostional method is that it starts by asking the preliminary question, “Why should we favor the presupposition that there is no God over the presupposition that there is?”  Of course, that’s only the beginning.  Presuppositionalism makes the much stronger claim that, in fact, no other presupposition but the Christian one allows for the possibility of reason, period.  But before we get ahead of ourselves, we had better ask the question, “What is a presupposition?”

Bahnsen, interpreting Van Til on this very question, says:

A Presupposition is, therefore, an “elementary” (i.e., basic, foundational, starting point) assumption about reality as a whole.  An elementary presupposition serves as an essential condition necessary to one’s outlook on the world and life.  It is a necessary precondition for human thought and experience, without which logical reasoning would be impossible and human experience unintelligible.[2]

Presuppositions are not just implicit beliefs that you hold.  They actually govern the way you think, “all the way down to how you select and employ specific facts from the countless number of facts ceaselessly flowing through your senses and into your mind each and every moment of the day.”[3] You cannot even think about the most basic facts of your daily life without presuppositions, let alone argue about concepts such as the existence of God or universal moral laws.  But this is only the first part of understanding presuppositions.  Presuppositions do not operate in isolation from one another, but rather work together within a worldview.  Bahnsen defines a worldview as follows:

A worldview is a network of presuppositions (which are not verified by the procedures of natural science) regarding reality (metaphysics), knowing (epistemology), and conduct (ethics) in terms of which every element of human experience is related and interpreted.[4]

Everyone must have a framework by which they understand the world and their own relation to it.  Without such a framework there could be no coherence to our thought life.  Thus, it makes no sense to speak of neutral epistemic ground, if by that we mean a ground without any presuppositions.  The presuppositions are the ground![5]

What is the practical significance of all this for the Presuppositional apologetic method?  First, you cannot be neutral.  You cannot assume the unbeliever’s worldview (which perports to be neutral) when attempting to prove it false, for despite the claim to neutrality, we have seen that no worldview can function without presuppositions.  And the unbeliever’s presuppositions are antithetical to those of the Christian (which is seen most clearly in the unbeliever’s presupposition that there is no God).  To accept the unbeliever’s worldview, then, would be to accept those presuppositions, which the Christian necessarily cannot do.  Bahnsen goes one step further by claiming that it is not merely unreasonable to attempt neutrality, but sinful.  When Christians attempt to reason in an “unbiased” way in the hope of establishing neutral ground, “they are not only contradicting reality (since no one can be neutral), but are denying the creator of all reality (by not bowing before His absolute Lordship).  Such an attempt is both vain and immoral, both illogical and unfaithful.”[6]

The second practical application to apologetics comes from the much stronger Presuppositional claim that God is the necessary precondition for the intelligibility of reality.  Put simply, unless a person S presupposes the existence of the Christian God, S has no rational justification for any of his beliefs.  This is because all of S’s beliefs are either reasonable or unreasonable.  If they are unreasonable, then obviously they are not justified.  But if they are reasonable, it must be because they meet all the necessary criteria that make something reasonable.  All of this seems perfectly mundane and obvious.  But, says the Presuppositionalist, one of those criteria must be that reason itself is intelligible.  And this requires presupposing the Christian God.  Bahnsen elaborates:

…the non-Christian must establish his theory of knowledge on the same foundation upon which he established reality: nebulous, chaotic, irrational chance.  If followed out consistently the non-Christian theory of knowledge would utterly destroy the very possibility of knowledge, causing it to drown in the turbulent ocean of irrationalism.  There is no way to account for reason in the non-Christian system.[7]

The point of emphasizing “consistently” in the above quotation is to highlight the fact that non-Christians do in fact use reason and do have true beliefs.  This is possible because they do in fact presuppose God, which is inconsistent with their professed worldview.  This also involves the touchy matter of self-deception, which we will address in later.

The Presuppositional method, then, has several distinct features from traditional or evidential methods.  Christianity is not presented as the best possible worldview, but as the only rational worldview to hold.  Presuppositionalism attempts to prove this by showing “the impossibility of the contrary.”  This is a very important phrase that makes up the core of the Presuppositional method.  The unbeliever is required to consider which worldview, as a whole, makes all of human experience intelligible.  As such, “It is not a direct argument dealing with individual facts, but an indirect one dealing with the nature of facts.”[8] Presuppositionalism seeks to establish the truth of Christianity by demonstrating that no other worldview can make intelligible any aspect of human experience, and are therefore ultimately self-contradictory and impossible.  To quote Van Til’s most famous (or perhaps infamous) line in describing this method of doing apologetics:  “The only ‘proof’ of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of ‘proving’ anything at all.”[9]

The corollary of the impossibility of the contrary is that of total epistemic certainty.  In this regard Presuppositionalism stands alone.  Both Classical and Evidential apologetics deal with probability.  Based on the available evidence and the use of best reason, we can come to the conclusion that Christianity is the most plausible worldview, but we must always admit that there is some finite chance that we are wrong.  Our certainty may reach 99.9 percent, but it can never reach 100.  Presuppositionalism, on the other hand, claims to give us absolute certainty in the truth of Christianity, because all contrary options are impossible.

Reformed Epistemology

Put simply, Reformed Epistemology tells us that it is possible to believe in the existence of God without any evidence.  This is because belief in God can be classified within that group of beliefs known as properly basic.  A basic belief would include things like sensory beliefs (beliefs about the external world) and memory beliefs.  Examples of these might be:

(1)  I see a tree,

(2)  I had breakfast this morning.[10]

There is no evidence for these beliefs other than the fact of the sensory or memory experience itself, and yet we would normally want to say that such beliefs are perfectly rational.  And yet it would also be wrong to say that such beliefs are groundless.  In these cases, though the beliefs are not based upon other beliefs, they are indeed grounded.

Upon having an experience of a certain sort, I believe that I am perceiving a tree.  In the typical case I do not hold this belief on the basis of other beliefs; it is nonetheless not groundless.  My having that characteristic sort of experience—to use Professor’s Chisholm’s language, my being appeared treely to—plays a crucial role in the formation and justification of that belief.  We might say this experience, together, perhaps, with other circumstances, is what justifies me in holding it; this is the ground of my justification, and, by extension, the ground of the belief itself.[11]

Belief in God can be like this.  Plantinga cites John Calvin’s concept of the Sensus Divinitatus.  This “sense of the divine” was given to us by God in order to predispose us to forming beliefs such as:

(1)  God is speaking to me,

(2)  God has created [the world],

(3)  God disapproves of what I have done,

(4)  God forgives me,

(5)  God is to be thanked and praised.[12]

Beliefs such as (1), (3), and (4) might arise when one reads the Bible, spontaneously and in the same way that a belief such as “I see a tree” arises when one has the experience of seeing a tree.  Beliefs (2) and (5) might arise when someone observes the beauty and order of the natural world, or when life is “sweet and satisfying.”  At this point, Plantinga notes that none of these beliefs is the belief “God exists.”  But each of the beliefs above self-evidently entails the existence of such a person as God.  So, strictly speaking, belief in God qua belief in God is not properly basic, but rather beliefs such as (1) – (5), beliefs about his attributes and activities, are properly basic.

Another important feature of Reformed Epistemology is the concept of warrant.  Warrant, according to Plantinga, is that feature that tips the scales and turns a true belief into knowledge.  It would be impossible to treat this concept adequately in a paper of this size.  For our purposes we need only give the briefest sketch.  A belief has warrant if (1) it is produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties, (2) in an appropriate epistemic environment, (3) according to a design plan aimed at truth.  Plantinga argues at length in his book Warranted Christian Belief that belief in God without evidence does indeed meet these criteria.

The apologetic application of Reformed Epistemology is two-fold.  First, it provides justification (or warrant) for belief in God, even in the face of objections.  Without attempting to defend him here, Plantinga argues that a strongly held basic belief can be an intrinsic defeater-defeater, meaning that it may possess a certain inherent ability to defeat objections (defeaters) raised against belief in God, such as the problem of evil.  Reformed Epistemology maintains that it is not irrational to continue believing in God even if a Christian has no other response to an objection (like the Problem of evil) than the basic belief itself.  Second, the concept of proper function and all that it entails allows for several versions of a transcendental argument for theism.  These transcendental arguments are similar to the transcendental arguments of Presuppositionalism, only far more limited in their scope (they do not purport to show that all other worldviews are false or irrational, only naturalism.  And they do not argue in favor of Christianity specifically, only theism in general).

Combining Strengths

At first it may be difficult to see where these two schools meet and where they diverge.  This is in part because Reformed Epistemology (hereafter, RE) is hard to nail down.  On the one hand it fits very nicely into the Classical/Evidential schools, providing justification for belief in God without considering presuppositions.  And yet the primary fruit of Plantinga’s labors has been a transcendental argument which, like Presuppositionalism, aims to show that the naturalistic worldview does not meet the preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience.  For now I will restrict my comments to one area where I believe these two schools can greatly benefit one another:  The problem of the self-deceiving unbeliever.

One objection raised against Presuppositionalism has been that it is forced to the absurd conclusion that unbelievers can’t know anything.  Some have taken this conclusion to follow naturally from the fact Presuppositionalists require belief in God to justify any belief.  If the unbeliever does not believe in God, it would seem to follow that he has no justification for any of his beliefs, and therefore has no knowledge.  But isn’t it absurd to say that an unbeliever doesn’t really know that 2 + 2 = 4 because he doesn’t believe in God?  Bahnsen has a response to this objection, taking his cue from Romans 1:18 – 21.  There, Paul says:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

According to Paul, all men do know God.  Not just any vague sense of a deity, but God; His attributes, power, and even His very nature.  But according to Paul the unbeliever suppresses this truth “by their unrighteousness.”  This is obviously a form of self-deception, but how exactly does it work?  If we call belief in God “G”, are we forced to conclude that the unbeliever believes G and not G at the same time?  Bahnsen’s solution is simple, yet brilliant.  Let “S” stand for any non-Christian person:

(1)  S believes G

(2)  S believes the proposition “S does not believe G”

Here S’s false belief is not about G itself, but about S.  The non-Christian has a false belief about himself, about his believing in God, rather than a false belief about God.  The non-Christian, then, is no longer forced into believing a blatant contradiction, and can use (2) to suppress (1).

It seems to me that both sides can benefit from each other at this point.  By making use of RE’s arguments for belief in God being properly basic, Presuppositionalism gets a neat epistemological system to fit its claims that all men know God.[13] It even fits perfectly into Paul’s argument in Romans 1.  Those things which are “clearly perceived” are God’s “attributes” and this is prompted by nature.  This fits with the argument that beliefs such as “God created me”, “God is worthy of thanks and praise”, “God is good”, etc, are properly basic, and that from these basic beliefs we know necessarily that God exists.

The benefit to RE is, I think, even greater.  One objection to the Sensus Divinitatus model is that not everyone believes in God, basically or in any other way.  Plantinga’s response has been that due to the noetic effects of sin, not everyone forms the basic belief in God.  But this seems inadequate, for two reasons.  First, it fails to give full weight to Paul’s teaching in Romans 1.  All men do know God, and there seems to be no good reason not to understand Paul as saying something like what RE is saying, namely that all men have basic beliefs about the attributes, creative power, and nature of God.  Second, Plantinga wants us to conceive of the Sensus Divinitatus as being like any other cognitive faculty we possess.  But if sin does not prevent us from forming properly basic beliefs with our other cognitive faculties, why should it do so with respect to the Sensus Divinitatus?  Adopting Bahnsen’s model of self-deception seems a much wiser course.  This would strengthen RE’s case for a Sensus Divinitatus by showing how it could be the case that everyone does in fact believe in God in the basic way.  So much for mutual strengthening.  Now we move to the second section, the critique of Presuppositionalism.

The Transcendental Argument against Presuppositionalism

Central to Presuppositionalism is the claim that belief in God is required to justify any otherwise rational belief, and even to justify rationality itself.  No worldview can even get off the ground unless it presupposes the existence of God.  This claim is literally what makes Presuppositionalism what it is.  I believe it is false.

Now for the qualifications!  William Lane Craig makes a very helpful distinction between God being the ontological grounding for all of reality, and being the epistemic grounding for all of reality.[14] For a Christian, God obviously must be the former, and if the former then the latter as well.  But for the unbeliever, God need not be the latter (the epistemic grounding) for his beliefs to be rational (at least, not that the unbeliever needs to be aware of).  Hopefully this point will become clearer after I have presented my argument, so I will turn to that now.

In Presuppositionalism we are required to presuppose the existence of God.  But if we presuppose God, specifically the Christian God, then it would seem to follow that He has created human beings with properly functioning, truth-producing cognitive faculties (as RE suggests).  But if this is indeed the case, then any beliefs which are produced by said properly functioning, truth-producing faculties will necessarily be justified, and therefore rational.  But if that is the case, then it follows that a person need not believe in God as the direct epistemic justification for the beliefs produced by his properly functioning, truth-producing faculties.  They are justified on the basis of the faculties themselves, without reference to the designer of those faculties.  Therefore, on Presuppositionalism’s most basic presupposition, it is shown to be self-contradicting.[15]

One possible response to this argument could be to deny that God has created human beings with reliable, truth-producing faculties, but this seems like an unlikely response for a Christian.  A second objection could be to say, along with Plantinga, that the noetic effects of sin are of such a quality and severity that our faculties are neither reliable nor truth-producing after the Fall.  But this also seems inadequate, for several reasons.  First, this would make the Presuppositionalist claim out to be that only fallen man needs to presuppose God in order to make human experience intelligible, but this not, I don’t believe, the claim that Presuppositionalists are making.  Second, Presuppositionalism is committed to the claim that fallen man knows God, which would seem to indicate that man’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly.  It is only after this that the unbeliever suppresses his belief in God, which is a moral failing and not a cognitive one.  In other words, it is not man’s faculties themselves that are corrupted by sin, but how he uses them.

How might this argument play out in example?  One prominent example that Bahnsen liked to use against the naturalist was the belief in the uniformity of nature.  Given a chance and chaotic universe, how can the naturalist justify his belief that nature is ordered, and that the future will resemble the past?  The option seems open to the naturalist to claim that his belief in the uniformity of nature is properly basic (indeed, the Christian can and should say the same).  If God has indeed created him, like everyone else, with reliable, truth-producing cognitive faculties that have produced in him, under the proper circumstances, his belief that nature is uniform, then it is justified without direct reference to God, and the naturalist is therefore perfectly rational.  But of course, the notion of reliable, truth-producing faculties cannot be accounted for on a naturalistic system (which is what Plantinga’s transcendental argument aims to show).  In which case it might be objected that RE merely pushes everything back one step, and in a more indirect way still requires presupposing God, just as Presuppositionalism does.  But the whole point is that basic beliefs are justified without reference to any other beliefs.  So until the naturalist hears Plantinga’s argument for theism from properly functioning faculties, he is perfectly rational in believing in the uniformity of nature without believing in God.[16]

A New Method?

It would be too ambitious to claim that I am actually proposing an entirely original way of doing apologetics.  What I have done instead is to take the strengths of Presuppositionalism and RE and allowed them to work together, I hope, for the betterment of both.  And while I have offered an argument that effectively rejects Presuppositionalism as its own apologetic method, I should note two things here.  First, I have not proposed to reject the marvelous insights of Presuppositionalism when it comes to the myth of neutrality.  I whole-heartedly agree that there can be no neutral, unbiased, presuppositionless way of reasoning.  I also agree that it is impossible to adopt the presuppositions of the unbeliever, since they are contrary to Christianity.  But that does not mean that we cannot adopt the unbeliever’s worldview, for the sake of argument, in order to show them that their presuppositions lead to contradiction or absurdity from within.[17] Second, it seems that Presuppositionalism is not really an apologetic method of its own, so much as it is a critique of false epistemologies.  Craig suggests that, “The central insight of Presuppositionalism is that theological rationalism is a false doctrine.  We are not dependent on argument and evidence in order to believe rationally in God, or even to know that he exists.”[18] This should sound familiar.  Craig’s claim seems to be that the central insight of Presuppositionalism is exactly the central insight of RE.  This may not be the whole story, but it is certainly true that they share this feature in common.  In addition, the same critique has been lodged at RE, namely that it does not represent a unique method for doing apologetics, but that, like Presuppositionalism, it offers some very good insights regarding epistemology and justification, which ought to inform our apologetics.

I am inclined to agree, and with that we arrive at the final section of the paper where I will offer some very brief comments about the relationship our two schools have to the “old schools.”  Both Presuppositionalism and RE make room for (and even encourage) the use of evidences.  Both schools would allow for historical arguments, such as the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus, as well as the so-called theistic proofs of Classical Apologetics.  In that sense there is significant agreement.  Where Presuppositionalism parts ways with the others is in its claim that such arguments cannot be made in their traditional forms, but must be subsumed under the transcendental argument showing the impossibility of the contrary.  Here I would disagree again with Presuppositionalism, especially when it comes to the resurrection arguments.[19] First, the assumption seems to be that such traditional arguments require one to adopt a “neutral” perspective.  But as we have seen, this is not the case.  Even Bahnsen admits that we have “common ground” with the unbeliever in that we all see the same facts of reality, and this is all the traditional arguments require.[20] Second, Presuppositionalism rejects these traditional arguments because they only give us probability, not certainty.  Two points need to be made here.  One, Presuppositionalism can’t really give us 100 percent certainty either, because it cannot in the final analysis make good on its claim to prove the impossibility of the contrary.  There is always the chance that finite (and fallen) human beings can make errors in our reasoning, and even the transcendental argument is not immune from this.  Two, even if we cannot have complete epistemic certainty, we can have perfect existential certainty, which is granted to us by the Holy Spirit (it might be better to drop the language of “certainty” altogether and simply talk of the assurance of faith).  Finally, Bahnsen claims that such traditional arguments cannot ultimately be effective because the unbelieving naturalist can simply say, “Ok, Jesus rose from the dead, but all that proves is that weird things can happen.”  But the unbelieving naturalist could say essentially the same thing in response to Bahnsen’s transcendental argument from the uniformity of nature.  “Ok,” he says, “there is no good naturalistic explanation for the uniformity of nature yet, but there could be one that is currently outside of our present understanding, and regardless, that doesn’t mean I have to accept the Christian explanation.”  Now Bahnsen would simply dismiss this as “wishful thinking.”  But then why can we not dismiss the naturalist who says “weird things happen” in the same way?  Bahnsen is, I think, inconsistent on this point.

On the other side, neither Classical nor Evidential apologists (at any rate, not their modern representatives) would disagree with Bahnsen that presuppositions are a necessary part of our reasoning about the world, nor would they disagree that unbiased neutrality is a myth.[21]

In the end, then, I believe these distinctive schools are not really all that far apart.  And thus I would advocate what might be called “Practical Apologetics”, “Common Sense Apologetics”, or even (if I may be so bold) simply “Christian Apologetics.”  The labels may have become unnecessary at this point.  This should be especially true for those of the Reformed persuasion.  If we really believe that it is the Holy Spirit who changes peoples’ hearts and minds, according to God’s sovereign plan, and that we are not actually responsible for anyone’s conversion to Christianity, then we should be free to use any apologetic strategy or argument, depending on the circumstances.

In summary, I believe that our apologetics must be informed by the epistemological insights of Presuppositionalism, recognizing that no one can be neutral or reason without guiding presuppositions, and of Reformed Epistemology, understanding the nature of basic beliefs, warrant and proper function.  But with that epistemic grounding established, I believe we are free to adapt our actual apologetic method to particular situations, employing different tactics and arguments based upon the questions, needs and concerns of our audience.


Bahnsen, Greg L. Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Method of Greg L. Bahnsen. Powder Springs: American Vision, 2007.

Plantinga, Alvin.  Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Craig, William Lane, ed. Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Cowan, Steven B., ed. Five Views On Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

Anderson, J. “If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Alvin Plantinga and Cornelius Van Til.” Calvin Theological Journal. 40 (2005): 49-75.

Bahnsen, Greg L. “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics.” Westminster Theological Journal. 57 no. 1 (1995):1-31.

Swinburne, Richard. “Plantinga on warrant.” Religious Studies. 37 no. 2 (2001):203-214.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Rationality and public evidence: a reply to Richard Swinburne.” Religious Studies. 37 no. 2 (2001):215-222.

Frame, John M. “Van Til on Antithesis.” Westminster Theological Journal. 57 no. 1 (1995):81-102.

[1] Greg L. Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology Of Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs: American Vision, 2007),  7.

[2] Ibid., 44.  (Emphasis mine)

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 42-43.

[5] I should add a brief caveat regarding Bahnsen’s parenthetical note that presuppositions cannot be verified by the procedures of natural science.  What he means to say is that natural science itself is founded upon certain presuppositions (for example, that nature is uniformly ordered, that the future will resemble the past, etc.).  In this sense, natural science cannot test those presuppositions because it must rely on them in the process of testing.  In another sense, natural science is necessarily empirical in its method, and presuppositions themselves are neither material nor capable of being empirically tested (they cannot be weighed, measured, etc.).

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 146.

[9] Ibid., 148.

[10] Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief In God Rationally Acceptable?” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 43.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Examples borrowed from Plantinga.

[13] Thanks to Nate Taylor for suggesting this to me in conversation.

[14] William Lane Craig, “A Classical Apologist’s Closing Remarks”, in Five Views On Apologetics, ed. Steven B. Cowan, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 315 – 316.

[15] I understand that this isn’t exactly a transcendental argument, but it does seem to demonstrate that Presuppositionalism fails to work given its own presuppositions, and so it is akin to a transcendental argument.  I chose the title (as I said in the introduction, “playfully”) mostly for shock value.

[16] It remains a question as to whether or not the naturalist would be required to accept theism in order to remain rational even after hearing Plantinga’s argument, and one which I must leave unanswered for now.

[17] What puzzles me is that Bahnsen says the same thing, and even suggests that we have “common ground” with unbelievers which we can use to reason with them.  But so far as I know, this is all the Evidentialist or Classical Apologist would say in the first place.  Certainly Craig and Habermas would not suggest that we actually accept the presupposition that God does not exist!  Bahnsen’s insistence that Evidentialism requires the acceptance of neutrality is, I think, a straw man.

[18] Ibid., 232.

[19] Again, to be clear, I am only interacting with Bahnsen on this point, and not with other Presuppositionalists like John Frame, who would differ slightly with Bahnsen and adopt a position closer to the one I am advocating.

[20] Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis, 58.

[21] And if Craig, Habermas or any others from these schools would disagree with Presuppositionalism here, then I would simply say they are wrong.  I see no reason why either Classical or Evidential apologetics would be required to reject these insights and claim neutrality.

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