Comments in this recent discussion of apologetic methodologies by Liberty University professor Gary Habermas led me to find a paper he wrote on the topic, making the same claims back in 2002. Habermas is a well-known evidentialist and he defends his views in a faculty research paper entitled “Greg Bahnsen, John Warwick Montgomery, and Evidential Apologetics.” When it comes to presuppositionalists, however, I find some of his comments not only not compelling, but underwhelming and unfortunate in various ways. By considering some of his claims against us, I believe we can learn a few things about the nature, and thus the strengths and/or weaknesses, of the two positions.
I would thank Dr. Habermas, therefore, for presenting material that gives opening to an important discussion. We can be assured that this discussion would have happened earlier had either 1) Greg L. Bahnsen still been alive in 2002, or 2) I had seen this paper earlier than I did. But here we are.
My critiques will be simple and somewhat repetitive: Harbemas has made way too much of presuppositionalists’ references to evidences, and he has misread, or misunderstood, much of what he has presented on their behalf. I think, further, that there are reasons for this. Despite claims as to a “converging nature” between methodologies, there are reasons why the distance between evidentialism and presuppositionalism (both properly understood) is actually quite great: they come from irreconcilable theological positions. As long as each is consistent with their theological presuppositions (and they are not, always), the difference between the methodologies will always be night and day.
It’s simple: a consistent Arminian cannot develop a presuppositionalist method, and a consistent Reformed theologian can develop nothing else. In fact, the more consistent Arminians will remain with their Arminianism, the more they will develop evidentialistic and probabilistic arguments and methods. More importantly for this article, the more they are consistent, they seem less able even to understand and represent what presuppositionalists teach.
Presuppositionalists and Evidences
Among the more troubling instances of this in Habermas’s paper are in the section “Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Method and Positive Apologetics.” By “positive apologetics” here, Habermas means arguments proving the Christian claims as opposed to mere critiques of the unbelievers’ positions. And it is clear that for Habermas, positive arguments are inseparable from historical and empirical evidences. For this is the troubling aspect of this section, as he opens:
One major concern that clearly emerges from reading published works from the Van Tillian presuppositional school of thought is that they seldom even attempt to develop positive evidences for Christian theism. A simply amazing phenomena here is that, while they clearly acknowledge the need to do so, they very rarely ever attempt it. [Emphasis added.]
The emphasized statement above is an exaggeration based on a fairly shallow misreading of presuppositional authors. The misreadings follow like this:
For example, Van Til acknowledges that he thinks it is important to “engage in historical apologetics.” But he explains that he does not do so because his colleagues in his seminary “are doing it better than I could do it.” Still, he adds a few suggestions on how such an effort should be done.
Habermas then adds Bahnsen also as a witness in his favor:
Bahnsen acknowledges Van Til’s approval of historical evidences, listing some of Van Til’s caveats about doing so. Likewise, Bahnsen himself endorses historical evidences.
The irony here is that in the contexts of the references, both Van Til and Bahnsen are expounding why the evidentialist method is incorrect, why evidentialists have misrepresented or misunderstood what Van Til and Bahnsen are saying, and what the proper, limited role of evidences really is. Their point is that while evidences may have a place, they are not only not sufficient, but they can only be useful within a framework that presupposes the truth claims of the Christian God of the Bible. Nothing else will do, but will in fact concede the argument to the unbeliever. As such, evidence are highly limited and subject to the presuppositional argument, but moreover, evidentialism can never be a valid apologetic. And the irony is, of course, that now Habermas is doing exactly the same thing as the previous evidentialist critics. Let’s look at it:
Van Til’s response to J. Oliver Buswell
The Van Til reference appears in his book Defense of the Faith, particularly in a section that is responding to a long critique by J. Oliver Buswell.1 On page 194, Van Til objects that Buswell had “not, for all the length of your article, anywhere given a connect picture of my argument.” He then proceeds to lay out a few basic, foundational differences between presuppositionalism and the traditional method. These include four points, the last of which is, “(d) Implied in the previous points is the fact that I do not artificially separate induction from deduction, or reasoning about the facts of nature in a priori analytical fashion about the nature of human-consciousness.”2
It is under this point that Van Til goes on to make the claim Habermas references:
I would therefore engage in historical apologetics. (I do not personally do a great deal of this because my colleagues in the other departments of the Seminary in which I teach are doing it better than I could do it.)
The problem is that Habermas stops here, does not consider what comes either before or after these words, and draws his own conclusion that presuppositionalists “have all commended positive evidences.” But this is hardly the extent of the point Van Til was making—a point which renders this conclusion unwarranted. Just read what Van Til says immediately in the next sentences:
Every bit of historical investigation, whether it be in the directly Biblical field, archaeology, or in general history, is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer’s philosophy of fact. A really fruitful historical apologetic argues that every fact is and must be such as proves the truth of the Christian theistic position.3
You can see, then, that Van Til’s alleged commendation of historical evidences actually demands the presuppositional method first, and the challenge be given to the unbeliever’s presuppositions.
And again, irony has it that in the immediately-following paragraph, Van Til reminds the reader that he is correcting precisely such misrepresentation as Habermas has engaged in:
A fair presentation of my method of approach should certainly have included these basic elements that underlie everything else.
Further, Van Til makes clear that nothing at all is to be presented to the unbeliever apart from the presupposition that the God of the Bible must exist before any fact can be intelligible to begin with. This, also, is in the immediately-following paragraphs:
Shall we in the interest of a point of contact admit that man can interpret anything correctly if he virtually leaves God out of the picture? Shall we who wish to prove that nothing can be explained without God first admit some things at least can be explained without him? On the contrary we shall show that all explanations without God are futile. Only when we do this do we appeal to that knowledge of God within men which they seek to suppress. This is what I mean by presupposing God for the purpose of intelligent predication.4
It is clear, therefore, that Van Til was hardly giving some naked commendation of the use of evidences, and he was certainly nowhere near giving a nod to evidentialism. The comments, I repeat, could in no way be leveraged as any kind of support for Habermas’s method. Instead, they are classic Van Tillian refutations of that method, which can be found throughout his writings in many places. One of the best and clearest of these is found in his small pamphlet on Paul at Athens:
Are we really anxious to preach Jesus and the resurrection and the living God to men? Do we want to ask all men everywhere to repent and to see in the resurrection the evidence of their own eternal condemnation unless they do repent?
Then we must surely do what Paul did, tear our garments when men would weave our message into the systems of thought which men have themselves devised. We must set the message of the cross into the framework into which Paul set it. If we do not do so, then we are not really and fully preaching Jesus and the resurrection. The facts of Jesus and the resurrection are what they are only in the framework of the doctrines of creation, providence and the consummation of history in the final judgment. No man has found this framework unless he has been converted from the other framework through the very fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus as applied to him by the Holy Spirit and His regenerating power. It takes the fact of the resurrection to see its proper framework and it takes the framework to the see the fact of the resurrection; the two are accepted on the authority of the Scripture alone and by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Half-way measures therefore will not suffice; the only method that will suffice is that of challenge of wisdom of the world by the wisdom of God.5
Van Til’s references to evidences, therefore, are for the purpose of putting evidences in their place, and for invalidating any method of evidentialism. To read him any other way is to misread him.
Bahnsen’s critique of John Warrick Montgomery
The same problem exists with Habermas’s claim that Bahnsen “endorses historical evidences.” Here two citations from the paper in question make the context clear. Bahnsen did in fact list Van Til’s references to evidences, but note that he did so in order to show that the evidentialist John W. Montgomery had not acknowledged Van Til’s point that such evidences were pointless without the presuppositional argument in place first:
[W]hat Montgomery (via his parable) wants to make of the quotations from Van Til on pages 380–381 is that, by avoiding an inductive or factual apologetic, Van Til’s position loses the objectivity of evidence and the fruitfulness of argumentation. That this does not do justice to Van Til will be clear to anyone who will bother to read the context from which Montgomery takes his quotations. . . .
Van Til makes a point that “Every bit of historical investigation…is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position”, and he affirms that the falsifying interpretations of the facts by the unbeliever is not something unavoidable which the sinner cannot help doing: “…it is evident that by the sinner’s epistemological reaction I mean his reaction as an ethically responsible creature of God.” As before Van Til asserts of the non-Christian that “they oppose God’s revelation everywhere. They do not want to see the facts of nature for what they are”; and yet he also says further, “It is asked what person is consistent with his own principles. Well I have consistently argued that no one is and that least of all the non-Christian is…Neither do I forget that no man is actually fully consistent in working according to these assumptions.” Montgomery has simply not taken all the factors into account when he selects certain quotations from Van Til; those quotations must be understood in their context. When they are, it is manifest that they cannot be used as raw material for the type of parable Montgomery contrives. Van Til’s assertions, properly read in context, certainly do not lead to the outlook of Montgomery’s parable – which is precisely why it is deficient as a critique of Van Til’s position. It has nothing to do with Van Til’s position, despite the misleading appearance created by tendentious proof texting of Van Til’s publications. Indeed, the problems which are evident in the parable (to whomever they may apply) are themselves vanquished by Van Til’s teachings in the very places from which Montgomery quotes him!
Bahnsen more fully rounds out the refutation in the place Habermas alleges he “endorses historical evidences.” Bahnsen wrote,
The effectiveness of the evidence is felt by the believer because he is thinking within the context of revelational presuppositions, but the historical evidences are insufficient in themselves (even theoretically) to change the unbeliever’s mind because his thinking is guided by apostate presuppositions. If the non-Christian’s presuppositions are granted, then he has adequate reason to reject a simple historical apologetic built up from inductive evidences; this is why our apologetic to the unregenerate must be made up of stronger material. However, we do not neglect the historical evidences; they do have their use for the Christian. He uses them to edify other believers and to give honest answers to detail questions from critics. In neither case though should he talk endlessly about facts and more facts without discussing the philosophy of fact or presuppositions which render the facts meaningful. Therefore, understanding the relation between evidence and presuppositions, the presuppositional apologist does endorse the proper use of evidence. We insist that Christian faith, anchored in God, deals with the area of fact which is open to scientific treatment.
Therefore, you can see that Bahnsen’s endorsement is only of the “proper” use of evidence which can only take place within the presuppositional argument. This means that unless the method is fully presuppositional, evidential arguments are not valid. Worse, not only are they not valid, they actually do the reverse of apologetics: they give the unbeliever an adequate excuse to reject them, and an excuse is the one thing Scripture says that unbelieving mankind does not have (Rom. 1). Why would any Christian endorse a method that leaves an adequate excuse on the table?
Now Habermas has read these responses of Van Til and Bahnsen that clarified these points in the context of presuppositionalism refuting evidentialism. Yet, Habermas picks around the arguments Van Til and Bahnsen make in order to glean what he thinks are a couple admissions and endorsements of evidences on their part. But they are not really what he wants. They are instead just as strong an indictment of evidentialism as any other aspect of presuppositionalist writings, and one aimed directly at the fallacy of evidentialism as a method. In the case of Bahnsen’s critique of Montgomery, it was this very paper which Habermas was aiming to refute. Yet he does not even take into account the point Bahnsen was making in discussing evidences in that context.
The Arminian Vacuum
Space is growing precious in this already too long article, so perhaps I can flesh these points out more fully later. Suffice it merely to state here that there are an awful lot of assumption being made upon the foundations of fallacy. One appears to me to be an unspoken equivocation between any reference to “evidence” and an endorsement for “evidentialism.”
Beyond that, however, is the problem evidentialism tends to breed, and that is the belief that evidences take such preeminence that without them you have little to no apologetic at all. By placing them within a framework that delimits their usefulness, it is received as if you have entirely rejected any apologetic appeal to the unbeliever. This is not, of course, openly stated anywhere, but a kind of presumption is apparent in places.
This type of thinking is not difficult to demonstrate in Habermas’s paper. For example, he criticizes Bahnsen for arguing that in offering up Isaac, Abraham’s faith was presuppositional, not founded upon “empirical probability or inductive reasoning.” Habermas’s response to this is revealing: “Abraham was the recipient of many inductively-derived data. Even in this case, then, his faith was not produced in a vacuum!” [Emphasis added.]
While we could take time to go through the examples of what Habermas considers the “inductively derived data” which helped “produce” Abraham’s faith, that is not the point here. I want you to see how central, almost messianic, of a role evidence actually plays for the evidentialist. Without evidences being central, Habermas implies, faith would otherwise be “produced in a vacuum.”
The implications of this characterization are enormous, and frightful. This statement means that either we have evidences, or we have nothing—a “vacuum.” It means that the source of faith is either evidences or it is nothing. In other words, from this evidentialist’s view, there is no possibility of faith except from evidence.
Apart from the obvious false dichotomy, this statement exposes the compromise with humanism that lies at the heart of all non-presuppositional methods. It completely ignores the argument that the source of all facts (evidence) in the universe as well as all faith in the universe is the Creator himself. Thus, a faith that is produced without the direct contact of relevant historical evidences is in essence exactly the same as faith produced while observing those evidences: it is produced by God, and nothing else. And faith that is produced in correlation with evidences should never be said to be “produced” by evidences, for it is produced by the only source of both fact and faith, that is, God.
Even to suggest the possibility of a “vacuum” is also to miss the point of presuppositional arguments altogether. The question is never one of evidence or no evidence. Evidence is always all around us, and Romans makes clear that that evidence points to God, the unbeliever knows it, and it is unmistakably clear. The question is about interpretation of the evidence, for the unbeliever actively suppresses that which is abundant, inescapable, clear, and known. The problem is not in the want of evidence; it is in the suppression of it. The gift of faith is the only thing that can end this suppression and thus amend the individual’s interpretation of the evidence. Thus, faith has the leverage over fact. This means that the apologetic endeavor must focus upon challenging the unbeliever’s philosophy of fact rather than loading him up with additional facts.
Ironically, this is the exact point Bahnsen is making in his section on Abraham’s faith. It appears to be a point Habermas did not catch. Bahnsen writes:
Genuine resurrection faith according to the word of God is not staked on inductive validation, for even when the resurrected Lord appeared to His eleven disciples, “some doubted”. Indeed the spiritual condition of man is such that “if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one should rise from the dead.” Resurrection faith is a matter of presuppositional submission to the authoritative word of God. When Christ met two travelers on the road to Emmaus and found them doubtful of the resurrection, rather than offering them compelling empirical evidence (by causing them to recognize Him) He rebuked them for being slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken; He made their hearts burn within them by expounding to them the scripture. If men will not begin by acknowledging the truth of God’s authoritative revelation, an empirical resurrection will not bring them belief. This is the plain teaching of Scripture. The example of resurrection faith is found, not in doubting Thomas, but in Abraham, the father of the faithful. Against all empirical probability or inductive reasoning Abraham offered up his only begotten son, “accounting that God is able to raise men up even from the dead” [see Heb. 11:19]; the nature of Abraham’s faith was an ability to believe against hope but according to what God had spoken, being fully assured that God was able to perform what he had promised. Such faith cannot be produced in a sinner’s hardened heart by inductive argumentation; it must be a gift from God—not self-glorifying, intellectual works of man. “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”; “faith is … a conviction of things not seen.” Therefore, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” said Christ to Thomas. Resurrection faith begins with a presupposition about God’s ability to raise men even from the dead—as it did with Abraham—not with inductive proofs. Hence our apologetic should begin, as did Paul’s, with a question of presuppositions: “Why is it judged incredible by you that God should raise the dead?” It must be rooted in the authoritative revelation of God, “saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses did say should come” because if men will not hear Moses and the prophets neither will they believe the most compelling, factual demonstration!
Amen. And Amen.
The humanism inherent in the system
Indeed, Habermas actually acknowledges the point Bahnsen argues, but he does so in passing as a rhetorical question intended to be a criticism of presuppositionalism. He asks, “Could it be that certain Reformed theological commitments are responsible for this lack of positive apologetics? Might not treasured theological and/or biblical stances be placed above evidential ones?” The fallacy of this lies in what it seems to be blind to, yet forms the basis of evidentialism. Just ask the question in the reverse: Are you suggesting that evidential stances ought to be placed above those of the Bible? If so (and the implication seems to be “yes”), then you have adopted the worldview of the humanist and at the very least given the unbeliever a valid justification for why he rejects miracles, resurrections, God, and the supernatural in general.
As I ponder the implications of this, I can’t help thinking of Habermas’s life-long (it seems) interaction with atheist Antony Flew. They once even debated the historical evidence for the resurrection. The evidential method was on full display. Flew, being a man intensely interested in science and evidence, you would think this method would be perfect. By all accounts, he was an honest thinker who did not fear to go wherever the evidence leads.
Low and behold, near the end of his life, Flew announced a major shift in his thinking. After much thought, and after much following of the arguments to their logical ends no matter what, Flew had come to believe in God. Boom!
Except there was a catch. Amidst many articles and even books written about the conversion of this famous atheist to theism, there stood out one major problem. Flew had only accepted the fact the information in the universe appeared to necessitate a designer. He had converted therefore only to deism.
And what is “deism.” Deism is the belief that some intelligent source created the world, but only like a watchmaker creates a watch: wound it up, and then left it to run on its own. There is no providence. There is no relationship with this God. There are no miracles. There is no salvation or redemption, etc. Only an impersonal, and now fully absent, abstract watchmaker. This is hardly even theism. It is what I call practical atheism, for it gives the atheist a solution to the origins questions, yet leaves him free to live however he likes, free of any Divine Authority. On paper, it’s theism. In practice, it’s atheism.
Indeed, in all the fanfare among Christian and other publications that followed with a kind of oblivious triumph, Flew continued repeated to state that he had not accepted Christianity, did not believe in miracles, etc.
Congratulations, evidentialism. Your crowning achievement of the modern era has been to convert an atheist into a practical atheist who still openly denounced Christ.
Now, I don’t mean to lay this failure itself personally at the feet of Habermas, as if his methods and actions alone are at fault for the non-conversion of Flew and the unwarranted fanfare among Christians that followed. The point here is that the only crucially important aspect of the apologetic encounter is not the evidence, but the fact that the fallen man already knows the full truth of the evidence clearly and yet is suppressing it. Unless this aspect is addressed and challenged from the outset, the appeal to evidences it little more than futile, and indeed may be completely counterproductive.
The evidentialist here displays an all-consuming obsession with evidence with a nearly messianic role in apologetics. This obsession, I believe, leads not only to the type of misreading and misrepresentations of presuppositionalism we have seen above, but also to a cavalier neglect of the weight of the great critiques it has leveled against evidentialism.
As I read Habermas’s paper, I see him projecting this obsession onto the alleged support Van Til and Bahnsen gave to evidences. Not only are the writings misread, they grow more exaggerated as the paper itself goes along. Thus we see alleged presuppositional capitulation to evidences go from alleged “acknowledgement” to “endorses” then to “critical need,” then to an admission that evidences are “biblical” and “ought to be pursued.” By the end of the paper, Habermas is actually claiming that for presuppositionalists, evidences “are deemed to be crucially important” [emphasis added]. This escalating rhetoric is not only not borne out by presuppositionalist writings, it is, as seen above, positively refuted.
Evidences are only meaningful within the framework of a presuppositional argument, and this must be established before endless chatting with unbelievers about evidences. Far from suggesting any endorsement of the evidentialist method, this single proposition alone is enough to contradict it fully. Disagree with presuppositionalists if you like, but don’t suggest their view of evidences gives any support to the evidentialist method. Acknowledging this would prepare the way for the real discussion that needs to happen, and then, maybe, some proper “converging” can start to take place.