Capturing Christianity published an interview with Dr Richard Howe yesterday titled 'A Sound Refutation of Presuppositionalism with Dr. Richard Howe'
When I first saw the video announced, I decided to do a review. This article will go over some of the major points that Howe made in the video and provide commentary on them. I briefly met Dr Howe last year in Pretoria, South Africa and he is an incredibly friendly person to have around and we have great respect for him and his work. This article is in no way an attack on the character of Dr Howe or of the Capturing Christianity ministry, but rather an analysis of their ideas regarding presuppositional apologetics. If you'd like to give the video a watch, here it is:
Right off the bat the interview begins with the statement "We're talking about reasons to think that [presuppositionalism] is false or the wrong view". That's not an incredibly honest approach to a conversation on presuppositional apologetics, especially if you don't define the position you're trying to refute first, right? So, what is presuppositional apologetics? Presuppositional Apologetics, for me, is defined in Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge". What bothers me the most when people discuss apologetics, and this is exactly what happened in the video, is that the Bible is scarcely mentioned if at all. Shouldn't we as Christians, who ought to hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, base the bulk of how we how do apologetics on what Scripture says? That would at least be consistent with 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Classical and Presuppositional Apologetics
Howe starts off by defining the presuppositional approach as: "The assumption or the presupposition of God is the precondition of knowledge". This is a strange/ambiguous way to put it and I've only ever heard it said this way from Howe himself. I would rather define it as "God is the precondition of knowledge (specifically the Christian God), and unless we fear Him / start with Him / presuppose Him in our thinking beforehand, we lose all knowledge". This seems consistent with Proverbs 1:7 as quoted above.
Howe then continues to define the classical approach as acknowledging that "There are truths about reality that normal humans beings with the faculties that God has created us with cannot fail to know..." I don't know of any presuppositionalist that will disagree with this, so this in and of itself does not distinguish presuppositional apologetics from the classical approach, but then Howe continues, "...and from those truths, we can continue to construct a demonstrable argument for the existence of God. The debate [between presup and classical apologetics] therefore is primarily over giving arguments and evidence for God's existence." There seems to be a slight confusion here. If God's existence needs to first be demonstrated by argument, how then do you know that your faculties are created by God in the first place? Howe's comment seems circular. If your approach demand that you first need to demonstrate God's existence, then you can't start by admitting that your faculties are created by God. So how does Howe know that his faculties are generally reliable to construct these arguments for God who gave him these faculties in order to make the argument? Whatever the answer may be, since the existence of a god is the conclusion of Howe's argument, it cannot be "because God has revealed", and therefore it is necessarily arbitrary which is one of the great intellectual sins. But not only this, the unbeliever, unlike Howe and us, doesn't believe that God created his/her faculties to know certain truths (denying that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge), so why would we grant them these truths to begin with? So how does the presuppositionalist escape this same problem? Simply, the Christian God is not the conclusion of our argument. The transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) states that the proof of the Christian worldview, is that without it you cannot prove anything. We start with the God of Scripture as the precondition of knowledge, demonstrating from the Scriptures / Special revelation that without the Christian God we cannot know anything at all, and then proceed to do an internal critique of the unbeliever's position showing them how the idols they erected in the place of the God they know exists (Romans 1:18ff) cannot save their absurd worldview. This approach is demonstrated in the following quote by Van Til:
“The Reformed method of apologetics seeks to escape this nemesis. It begins frankly ‘from above.’ It would ‘presuppose’ God. But in presupposing God it cannot place itself at any point on a neutral basis with the non-Christian. Before seeking to prove that Christianity is in accord with reason and in accord with fact, it would ask what is meant by ‘reason’ and what is meant by ‘fact.’ It would argue that unless reason and fact are themselves interpreted in terms of God they are unintelligible. If God is not presupposed, reason is a pure abstraction that has no contact with fact, and fact is a pure abstraction that has no contact with reason. Reason and fact cannot be brought into fruitful union with one another except upon the presupposition of the existence of God and his control over the universe.
Since on the Reformed basis there is no area of neutrality between the believer and the unbeliever, the argument between them must be indirect. Christians cannot allow the legitimacy of the assumptions that underlie the non-Christian methodology. But they can place themselves upon the position of those whom they are seeking to win to a belief in Christianity for the sake of the argument. And the non-Christian, though not granting the presuppositions from which the Christian works, can nevertheless place himself upon the position of the Christian for the sake of the argument.”
Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge p.18
Further, is the main difference between classical and presuppositional apologetics the giving of arguments and evidence as Howe seems to believe? This is of course another misconception of presuppositional apologetics. We are not against evidence, we are the ultimate evidentialists: We believe that every single atom, every single thought, every single moment evidences God, and not only a few arguments here and there. There is nowhere where the unbeliever can look and not see God. The the main difference rather lies in the way we treat the evidence: As presuppositionalists, the evidence stand under the authority of Scripture and Scripture provides us with the interpretive framework from which we can make sense of evidence and truth to begin with. The classical apologists (although they might deny this, their method demands it) place the authority of evidence over and above Scripture, trying to establish the truth of Scripture (and the existence of God) with evidence or arguments. They, therefore, advocate for the neutrality of evidence and grant that unbelievers can know truth whilst denying the God who made them. Presuppositionalists don't. Consistent with what the Bible teaches, we believe that man is not autonomous and, further, that unregenerate man will not think rightly over God because of the noetic effects of sin (Eph 4:18) (that is the effect of sin on the human mind). The classical apologist approaches the question of God's existence and the authority of Scripture as an open question. Presuppositionalists don't.
Ontology and Epistemology
Howe continues: "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."
We already discussed this point to some extent above, but here's the kicker that will highlight the difference more clearly. Both approaches agree that God is the precondition of knowledge (as Howe previously said: God made us with capabilities know certain things etc.). How does Howe know that God is the precondition of knowledge? I have yet to see this answered, and this same point was brought up in the Bahnsen / Sproul debate. Bahnsen knew that Sproul, like Howe, believed that God is the precondition of knowledge, but this is not the starting point of their epistemology.
Metaphysics (ontology) is the doctrine of being, what is real, what is true, what is the structure of and what does actually exist in the universe. Those things which have existence: metaphysics. And the doctrine of God is a metaphysical doctrine because we are talking about there being a God, especially a trans-physical being, be it God or laws of logic, whatever it is. Metaphysics.
Epistemology asks, “how do you know what you know, what are the criteria of knowing, what is the belief state and the questions having to do with knowing and the knowing process.”
Now [Sproul] is saying that he wants to start with epistemology and move to ontology, or metaphysics. Let’s just start with the law of non-contradiction, the basic reliability of sense perception and the law of causality. And from those epistemological platforms, from that platform, move to the existence of God.
What I want to say is you can’t begin even with that platform if you don’t already have the existence of God and that’s not an ontological statement because we have agreed ontologically that there wouldn’t be any logic or sense experience if God hadn’t created the world unless there is a coherent God. I am making an epistemological point that it doesn’t even make sense to use mathematics or empiricism or natural science of any sort without already knowing that there is a God that is the context in which interpretation and predication is possible. That’s the transcendental argument, saying that the precondition of intelligibility and knowledge is already… the existence of God. And that does not purport to be a probable argument for God’s existence but a certain argument, a necessary argument, an inescapable argument.
Dr Greg Bahnsen, Bahnsen v Sproul Debate.
Classical apologetics divorce epistemology from their ontology. They fail to recognise that what actually exists will have an effect on how we know what we know.
Consider this quote from Dr Van Til:
Suppose it is true, for argument's sake, that such a being as we have described God to be does actually exist [ontologically]. Would not such a God have the right to speak to us with authority [epistemologically]? Are we not, by saying that the question of knowledge [epistemology] is independent of the question of being [ontology], excluding one possible answer to the question of knowledge itself? If the being of God is what, on the basis of Scripture testimony, we have found it to be, it follows that our knowledge will be true knowledge only to the extent that it corresponds to his knowledge. To say that we do not need to ask about the nature of reality when we ask about the nature of knowledge is not to be neutral but is in effect to exclude the Christian answer to the question of knowledge.
Van Til, The Defense of the Faith
Joshua Pillows replied to Howe's confusion on the ontology / epistemology front as follows:
Mr. Howe’s confusion stems both from an elementary misunderstanding of the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics and the failure to grasp what Bahnsen is saying (which is evident in his Modus Ponens statement as we will see shortly). If we focus on the ontological aspect of both the Presuppositional and Classical approaches, both sides agree that God is the ontic grounding for the very possibility of intelligibility. But why? Neither side believes that it boils down to a mere guessing game. The ontology of God can only be fully known epistemologically via His revelation – general (Rom. 1) and special (Scripture). It is there that we come to find out about His attributes, and from attaining this knowledge do we go on to argue how and why God is the ontological precondition for intelligibility. Epistemology and metaphysics are inextricably linked to each other and cannot be divorced.
Joshua Pillows, An Essay Concerning the Alleged Confusion of Ontology and Epistemology within Van Tillian Presuppositionalism
I have yet to see any classical apologist engage with the responses given to the current objection. Even Dr Jason Lisle answered this very objection from Dr Howe in their written debate, and it can be read here. Howe simply ignored Lisle's response, and this is consistent with what I've seen with all other classical apologists regarding this issue. They seem to bring it up as a form of "mic drop" but never engage it deeper than simply stating the objection.
We now turn to Howe's final objection. Nearing the end of the video Howe tells a story of how he was struggling to get through to a certain presuppositionalist and then opted to turn the tables on him stating that the same presuppositionalist argument can be made from the Islamic perspective.
This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the transcendental argument, and fails to appreciate the devastating internal critique of the Islamic worldview (which we'll get to soon). Interestingly, Howe, bringing up this as a objection actually refutes himself. Howe, in bringing up this objection actually admits that when he said the following: "There are truths about reality that normal humans beings with the faculties that God has created us with cannot fail to know." He actually did not mean the Christian God but any god (such as Allah) can be substituted in this phrase.
This comes to show that Howe does not base his statement on God's revelation as we do, but on autonomous arguments, which is arbitrarily circular and self-refuting.
So what about Islam? Is there something like an Islamic presup apologist? Not a consistent one, no. We have an article on this by Kevin Enavworhe titled Islam and the Preconditions of Intelligibility.
Bahnsen answers this particular objection by stating that if Christianity is able to justify the preconditions of intelligibility, it by necessity follows that it is the only worldview that can justify the preconditions of intelligibility as that is part of it's internal claims (e.g. there is only one God). If there is another worldview that can provide a grounding for the preconditions of intelligibility, then it will follow that Christianity does not, in fact, supply us with the preconditions of intelligibility as it is internally flawed.
If there isn't another one, then Christianity is true. Christianity, due to the nature of the religion cannot be just one of many in a sequence. It's all or nothing. It must be the only one if it is one at all. However, Christianity does provide the preconditions of intelligibility and therefore it must be the only one.
From the own internal character of Christianity, we can eliminate all the other competing worldviews
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind?
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
...that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”