In a recent pair of attacks on the use of Presuppositional Apologetics (PA) in the abortion debate, Pyromanics (brought to you by MacArthur’s own Phil Johnson) blogger Frank Turk taunts all would-be critics, “Pack a Lunch.”
Let me say, I am glad I saved my lunch until afterward.
[L]et me say this to the pro-life apologist who has just started unpacking his Greg Bahnsen playbook (some of you have blacked out “Greg Bahnsen” and have written “Cornelius Van Til” on a piece of tape and plastered it over the title) for presuppositional ribaldry: put a sock in it. Even if you are dealing with a rank nihilist (and you might be), the problem here is not establishing a plausible epistemological system in order to detail the ethical implications of the Creator/Sustainer as it relates to reproductive ethical reasoning. The problem in rather that this person is not reasoning at all: they are emoting.
Aside from the condescension, Mr. Turk’s “not . . . rather” reveals, ahem, a considerable lack of correspondence between its epistemic substance and its logico-syntactical forms of expression—I mean, a lack of knowing what one is talking about. Please note: there is little if any difference between
1) Lacking “a plausible epistemological system” and,
2) “not reasoning” but “emoting”
So at the outset we are alerted to a problem in Turk’s approach. He’s criticizing the same problem as presuppositionalists, but for some reason he wants to speak demeaningly of PA, and presents PA as some over-wordy, academic, elitist side-hobby removed from the “real” world that needs to be replaced by a different approach, namely Turk’s approach, whatever it is and whatever he calls it.
Well, in a minute we’ll see what he calls it. He calls it “Presuppositional Apologetics,” but he has gutted all that is PA and replaced it with evidentialism and natural law, all the while calling it PA. It reminds me of Norm Geisler trying to redefined Calvinism by the tenets of Arminianism and still call it “Calvinism.” Then end result of both is the abortion of the Reformed faith, and thus the assertion of human autonomy in some form.
Anyone who understands PA will realize immediately that this type of presentation only results when 1) the critic doesn’t truly understand PA, 2) has a personal vendetta or agenda against it, or 3) both. We’ve seen it all before, many times unfortunately.
Such foibles lead to unfortunate representations of PA by its critics. Turk apparently thinks the only place for PA is in “high-brow” ivory tower settings:
Look: if you’re on a stage with Gordon Stein having a debate about whether or not an atheist has philosophical justification to make comparative statements without an eternal and objective external standard to create the basis for saying anything is “good” or “better” or “best,” I am sure everyone will be entertained by your high-brow retelling of “Who’s On First?”
Aside from the fact that the repeated condescension betrays insincerity, the implications of elitism and impracticality are staggering. PA has no place among average people:
But the average so-called atheist, or the average so-called feminist, or the average woolly post-protestant doo-gooder, or the person who is some mash-up of all three, isn’t trying, really, to undo Jesus here. . . .
Nonsense. That’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re doing nothing else. It’s the heart of all sin to try to “undo Jesus” and put yourself or some other Adam in His place. That is the fundamental presupposition for all sin and all sinners.
This fact is why a properly-applied presuppositional approach is both necessary and effective. It pierces the veil of emotive narratives and pricks the heart of the problem. Emotive narratives stand no chance. They deflate; they crash. The unbeliever grasps and gropes for their imaginary props but finds they have been blown away. They are not there. The unbeliever stand exposed, guilty, speechless. Now the fact of their no excuse before God becomes a conscious recognition of their no excuse before God. They must either repent or confess that they embrace chaos, irrationality, evil without the support of their imaginary constructs. This is why Sye chews up college kids like Cap’n Crunch.
Turk makes the same mistake when he tries to explain his view via the example of Margaret Sanger. Yes, he admits, she was a racist by modern views, but her demonic agenda was rooted in the education and science of her day, as well as a genuine experience and genuine concern for the poor. Thus, approaching her from the position of a preacher preaching sin and the Word of God would not have gained the moral high-ground. Her motives (something right up there is emotives) were too lofty and pure.
[I]n her own mind, she was never any kind of racist. She was an idealist, and wanted what was best for all humanity — and especially for women. . . .
She wanted it not because she was a committed atheist, or because she was some sort of necrophile. . . .
But on the contrary, that’s the exact reason she wanted it. In fact, Turk is so wrong here, he could not have stated a theological opinion more backward from scriptural truth: “All who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36). She was a committed atheist, and as such was a necrophile. She may have confronted some legitimate social problems, but she did it out of hatred for Christ and His Church, and thus she had no problem legitimizing and promoting programs of death. If abortion and euthanasia are not necrophilia (in the non-sexual sense), nothing else short of unnecessary war is.1
So when Turk says,
So you will excuse me if, on that basis, I will ask the presuppositionalist to stay out of it. He’s most of the way out of it already anyway. If he wants to get involved, he should start where the person in question actually is rather than where he would rather they be.
I can’t think of a more theologically ignorant thing to say (except for another I will show you in a moment). And honestly, I don’t think Turk even realized the full extent of what he was saying. PA and only PA among apologetic approaches begins where the person actually is: morally depraved and rebellious before God. Whatever intellectual or emotional deceptions they have embraced in the process of suppressing the truth of God (Rom. 1:18), we know that the real problem is the fallenness and rebellion against God. The rest is just a symptom. Turk is thinking only in terms of the intellectual starting point of the discussion (and apparently a very limited experience of it at that). But this is not how PA rolls. On the contrary, PA can begin at any starting point in any conversation, because there is not a single human thought or idea that falls outside the rule of God’s Word. But it is only that Word that will ultimately grind hearts and bust the power of those emotional narratives.
Turk, on the other hand, demands we simply present statistics and facts to the woman who is about to abort her child. Among these important facts, he notes that doctors are growing increasingly hesitant to perform abortions. Even among ob-gyns who have no religious affiliation, only 26.5% are willing to do so. In other words, even unbelieving experts are realizing the fetus is a living human being. Why they should care so much, he doesn’t say. (He also doesn’t explain why Jewish ob-gyns have much higher rates (40.2%). This fact must have John Hagee’s head still spinning.)
But here’s Turk’s methodology: when “the fact is cleft from the fiction, she should calmly and consciously change her mind.”
“Should” is a cop-out word here. We all should never sin at all. But Turk never tells us why people who are living within non-rational emotive bubbles will react calmly and positively to rational facts rather than the Word of God. And again, this is the exact opposite of what Scripture teaches concerning the rebellious man’s treatment of truth: he actively suppresses the truth of God in order to assert his own will and worship the creature rather than the Creator. In fact, Turk seems to have already forgotten that he himself just said these people are not reasoning at all, they’re emoting. So what good do facts and reasoning do all of the sudden?
PA in action
While the misrepresentations and condescension against PAs is not new, the attempt to present us as high-minded intellectuals will be news to anyone who actually practices PA, especially the many average Joes, pastors, or street preachers who exercise it in various ways every day—in preaching, counseling, evangelism, and yes, even anti-abortion activism.
Consider an example from a related field of feminism, lesbianism. A recent Christianity Today article by former “leftist lesbian professor” (her term) Rosaria Champagne Butterfield demonstrates just how PA breaks through to people when other approaches fail. She writes about a pre-conversion instance in which she wrote a leftist article that generated an influx of mail:
The article generated many rejoinders, so many that I kept a Xerox box on each side of my desk: one for hate mail, one for fan mail. But one letter I received defied my filing system. It was from the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Ken Smith encouraged me to explore the kind of questions I admire: How did you arrive at your interpretations? How do you know you are right? Do you believe in God? Ken didn’t argue with my article; rather, he asked me to defend the presuppositions that undergirded it. I didn’t know how to respond to it, so I threw it away.
Later that night, I fished it out of the recycling bin and put it back on my desk, where it stared at me for a week, confronting me with the worldview divide that demanded a response.
The letter was clearly applying PA. It pierced her veil. It did so because it defied the filing system of emotive narratives. This set her on a two-year-long journey out of lesbianism and into Christianity, particularly Reformed theology. So much for emotive narratives.
Of course, with a mother entering an abortion clinic, you don’t have two years. It’s not just emotion you’re confronting, it’s an emotional crux—a crisis moment, somewhere between 1 and 30 seconds.
But honestly, that’s not as different as you may think. The immediate goal in that crisis moment is to change that woman’s determination to the action she is about to take. We of course want the conversion of the woman, and yes, as immediately as possible. But whatever it takes to get that person to stop, just pause for a moment, and reconsider her action—that’s the immediate goal.
Now you tell me: what is most likely to change any human being’s mind on any issue at any crisis moment? What is the single most powerful force of communication with depraved, non-reasoning, emotion-driven people? Statistics pulled from Freakanomics.com? Notes from a Gallup poll? The majority opinions of atheistic doctors? Or, perhaps, the Spirit-empowered Word of God? What is going to create that pause, if anything? I will place my bet on the pronouncement of God’s Word any day, be it unpopular, considered unscientific, out of place, in bad taste, demeaned by other Christians, or whatever, for the situation. It will come in different styles and approaches depending upon the persons and settings, but nothing can penetrate the veils of various emotive nonsenses like God’s Word and Spirit—and that is not only as presuppositional as it comes, but only presuppositionalism goes there.
Turk’s solution is to stop preaching that abortion is an ethical infraction—stop calling it sin and murder, and stop calling for repentance. That is, abandon all forms of presuppositionalism. But because he abandons PA along with his own good advice, Turk ends up arguing that we must only confront emotion with emotion and atheistic experts with atheistic experts. But this is neither apologetics nor evangelism nor teaching. It’s capitulation. It’s perpetuating the errors beneath so much of modern evangellyfishism: it’s seeker-sensitivity, rationalism, and retreatism all wrapped up with a pinch of self-assured Christian snobbery.
In the end this type of thinking accomplishes none of its goals—indeed, not much good at all. It’s not just allowing the abortion of babies to continue under certain guises and its own emotive narratives, it’s also aborting the principles of the Reformed faith in the area of apologetics.
This is demonstrated even more clearly by Turk in his follow-up article, where he dismisses the appeal to Romans 1 as short-sighted and “dislocated from the rest of that chapter and the following chapter.” This is where the abortion becomes apparent.
What is most important about the rest of the chapter and the next? It is that unbelievers already know and clearly perceive God’s “righteous decrees”:
They know these things because God has shown it to them. These things have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
That is: there is a common basis for human discussion of what is right and wrong because of the way God made the world. That’s true presuppositionalism — not just that God is transcendent, but that He is Creator and Sustainer, and that human beings have no excuse for denying his moral law.2
This is where it’s clear Turk doesn’t truly understand PA. And the ignorance of it is staggering (this is that other comment I mentioned would come). Van Til began teaching his system at the very points Turk puts in juxtaposition to it: the Creator-creation distinction, and the fact that the Creator is revealed in every square inch, every atom, of His creation.
The point Turk doesn’t factor in, however, and the point that signals the abandonment of the Reformed faith, is that all-important qualifying verse in the context, Romans 1:18. Fallen men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” It doesn’t matter how many facts about God or nature they know, when their hearts are committed to rebellion, they suppress all those facts and justify their rebellion anyway. This is the Reformed view of knowledge and ethics, and it must be factored in to any discussion of apologetics.
Instead, by appealing once again to facts and evidences, and to the clear perception of God’s decrees via natural law, the apologist has left the realm of Reformed beliefs in epistemology and assumed the stance of the Arminian or Roman Catholic (or worse, atheist). Do that if you wish, but don’t call it PA. To call this “true presuppositionalism” is to call night day and dark light.
The necessity of Theonomy
Turk actually understands that there will always be fallen human beings who go so far as to rationalize or suppress facts in order to justify sin and even murder. But he apparently doesn’t see the effects it has on his argument.
Remember those doctors who refuse to perform abortions? He assumes they do so “because they have all the observational facts.” But this hardly the whole case. They do so because they have adequate observational facts to determine it’s a human life AND because they believe taking a human life in embryo is a violation of either their personal ethics or their oath of practice. Thus, there’s a whole lot more to the story than bare facts. There’s a moral code in play and some form of assent to the authority of that moral code—which of course it the heart of PA.
But what happens when doctors and patients don’t assent to that moral code, or have a moral code that reduces the choice between sparing the child to some economic calculation?
Turk actually considers this case, but does not see how it hampers all he has said already. Instead he thinks “when the empirical facts of abortion are evident, it’s the end of the line for the advocate for ‘choice.’” He quotes abortion advocate Mary Elizabeth Williams who agrees that the fetus is a living human being, and yet still justifies her pro-choice stance:
I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.
Even in cases where abortion is elected only to protect the economic lifestyle of the mother into the future, she says,
I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.
Turk thinks this viewpoint negates the power of PA:
You know: wow. If you want to get after Rom 1:21-23, it’s not for the person who has a legitimate question about the ethics involved.
What do you mean!? It’s about nothing but the ethics involved. Here you have a person who is advancing a self-invented moral code over against that of the Creator of the universe. Is it not clear at this point that it is not that the basic facts have not gotten through, but that those facts failed to persuade this person in the way Turk said they would?
And honestly, Turk knows this. For he continues,
It’s with a person like this that we ought to unleash the reproach on her own self-invented moral order. It’s here where we ought to ask the question, “you’re saying some people are going to be too poor to live? Or that somehow perceive economic advantages ought to dictate the value of human lives? How have you decided that economic scales are the best arbiter of the life-worthiness of a human being?”
Exactly. But notice what he is doing: he is asking he woman to provide an authoritative and coherent foundation for her self-invented moral worldview—a unique contribution and the very modus operandi of PA.
But to confirm that Turk doesn’t understand what PA has taught, he then defies his previous statement:
The person who is confused or mis-informed doesn’t need their foundations of epistemology undone: they need to see the facts for what they are.
But he himself has already quoted the woman proving conclusively that she does see the facts for what they are. But she overrides the facts with her moral worldview—i.e. her self-invented foundations for morality and epistemology. It is, therefore, precisely these things that need to be “undone” (indeed, exploded) in order for her to interpret and apply the facts in a godly way.
In the end, Turk does at least land on a right note: “For the person who sees and accepts the facts and still embraces moral quackery for the sake of a purely-political agenda? Those people require the heavy equipment to move in.”
That’s right. And let’s be clear, by heavy equipment, we mean civil law. But this of course assumes that enough people in society will share our interpretation of the facts—that is, that they share our moral worldview so that they see the facts the right way. This includes, among other things, the belief that it is good and right to use the force of civil government to impose certain moral values upon other people (by that point a minority) who may not agree with our interpretation and application of the facts. Enough people must believe it is right to use force to prevent certain manifestations of “moral quackery.” But this assumes we have a category by which we can judge moral quackery from moral integrity—a presuppositional question.
But the moral-legal dimensions mean that sometimes “moral quackery” is “murder.” You don’t coddle people like this with further discussions of their rationalizations of murder. They have made that conscious choice we mentioned earlier: to embrace chaos and evil. This is the end of the road for apologetical debate of any stripe, at least with that person. This person is why civil government exists. This is what criminal law is for. They may believe how they want, but God says they may not act on it in society. Their view is so radical in its willingness to manifest depravity (against all facts, btw) that it must be restrained by the threat of force.
If someone this self-conscious is defiant and kills babies anyway, you convict them of murder and then execute them. The only facts that matter at that point, are the ones admitted as evidence in court. But ultimately this depends upon whether the court believes abortion in general is murder or not. In other words, it depends upon the moral foundations of the court.
To achieve this point, enough people must engage in a presuppositional overhaul of criminal law. What Turk concludes for us—despite his own best attempts to promote human autonomy through evidentialism and natural law—is that social change ultimately rests upon changing the moral and epistemological presuppositions by which we judge our facts.
In other words, presuppositional apologetics drives the heavy equipment.
Ergo: social change is, and always will be, at root an exercise in Presuppositional Apologetics.
And that, friends, was worth packing a lunch.