A Presup Primer

Posted: September 6, 2011 by kingneb in Apologetics
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The Wiki entry for Presuppositional Apologetics begins as follows: In Christian theology, presuppositionalism is a school of apologetics that presumes Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. It presupposes that the Bible is divine revelation and claims to expose flaws in other worldviews. It claims that apart from presuppositions, one could not make sense of any human experience, and there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian. In other words, presuppositionalists claim that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue on the basis of a different set of assumptions that God may not exist and Biblical revelation may not be true. Presuppositionalism is the predominant apologetic of contemporary conservative Calvinist and Reformed churches. Two schools of presuppositionalism exist, based on the different teachings of Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Haddon Clark. Presuppositionalism itself contrasts with classical apologetics and evidential apologetics. Presuppositionalists compare their presupposition against other ultimate standards such as reason, empirical experience, and subjective feeling, claiming presupposition in this context is:

a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition…. This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought. It merely applies the doctrine of scriptural infallibility to the realm of knowing. ~ John Frame”

[end of wiki quote]

What i would like to do in this article is share a little on the presuppositional approach of Clark. Clark wrote a ton and there is much that can be said about him. However, i will only point out two things. Clark was a stickler on:

(1) Denial of empiricism
(2) Necessity of Logic

Clark explained, in so many books, that we cannot arrive at any knowledge starting with self. For starters, starting with one’s limited experience immediately creates the problem of induction. Atheism, simply put, cannot meet the demands of logic. Many within the reformed community seem to get that, but Clark took it a step further. He challenged the commonly held idea that sensations give us knowledge (see, touch, taste, smell, hear). Most of us just assume these things give us knowledge somehow; Clark challenged it. While truth may be imparted to the mind on the occasion of a sensation ~ like reading the Bible or hearing a sermon ~ it is not the sense experience itself that conveys that information. Truth is revealed immediately to the mind, without the means of sense experience. As Jonathan Edwards put it in his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul, “It is rational to suppose that this knowledge should be given immediately by God, and not be obtained by natural means.” It is “spiritual light that has been…immediately let into the mind by God.” Sensations, thus, are not the means. Clark went on to point out that EVEN IF we could somehow demonstrate how sense perception works (which no one has), we still run into the problem of induction – they go hand in hand. Even if we could explain what is, we still would not be able to explain what ought to be.

While Clark did not spend much time engaging atheism in his writings, one can easily take these two points and utilize them in apologetics/evangelism. An atheist worldview not only fails to meet the demands of logic because it is all built on induction, but it is incapable of explaining how we come to know anything at all. Because their starting point fails, they have no ground to launch an attack on Christianity. Atheists are in no position to criticize Christianity.

As a friend once stated:

you give the atheist no where to go. There is no common ground (evidentialism). Not even can the atheist claim the universal rules of logic. They have no grounds. Reductio ad absurdum. There is no common sense, common understanding, rational laws of the universe.

Unfortunately, some Christians believe there is some common ground. (Evidentialists, Classical) Some argue that starting with the Bible may work with Christians, but it will not get us anywhere with unbelievers. We have to start with “God exists”, and then reason from there to the “God” of Scripture. They even go so far as to agree with atheists that miracles are “irrational”.

These people take the exact opposite approach. They share the common ground of “empiricism” with the atheists and then somehow magically reason from “God exists” to the tens of thousands of propositions found in Scripture. I say “magically”, because in reality the task is impossible. For them, “starting with the Bible” seems like starting a movie from the middle instead of the beginning. They even appeal (wrongly) to Paul’s method in Acts and claim ”this is not a Biblical approach.”

Well, i beg to differ.

At work, i have the privilege of being able to listen to an ESV audio Bible all day on my iPod. I love it!  One day I was listening to 1 Corinthians and after hearing chapters 1 and 2, something *dawned* on me. The passage that really grabbed my attention was 1 Co 2.15:

The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.

“Wo, wo, wo”, i thought, “wait a second. He is ‘judged by no one.’ What all does that mean? Who can’t judge a spiritual person? Does this have implications for apologetics? At first glance, this text seemed to sound exactly like what i have read from Gordon Clark.

I couldn’t wait to get home and look at the text some more. I went back and read this whole block a number of times and things began to click. Now, i have read these verses a hundred times and have concentrated on a few to argue points like election, etc., but it never occurred to me until now that this whole block is basically Paul’s explanation of what we now call “Clarkian presuppositionalism”. There are “proof texts” in here that i knew fit in such a framework, but i never saw this entire sectionas being one big block of explanation until now. And a few verses that eluded me in the past, seem to make a ton of sense now, like 2.15. So, here is what i would like to do. First, I want to quote this block. Then, i would like to offer some observations and attempt to piece all this together:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

Observations:

(1) Notice that Paul states that “the word of the cross is folly.” (1.18) The same is said in 1. 21, “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save…” But i want you to notice what 1.18 goes on to say. “For the word of the cross is folly…to those who are perishing.”

We have to be very careful here. Some Christians, based on a superficial reading of this block, have argued that the Gospel is in fact foolish. It is silly. It is irrational. They, like many opponents to presuppositionalism, actually AGREE with the atheist that it would be irrational for God to raise corpses after three days. Thus, faith is a belief in the irrational. Faith is not reasonable. Faith is seen as accepting something despite the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever.

Is that what Paul is saying? Heavens no! The word of the cross is folly TO THOSE who are perishing…TO THEM. In their eyes…from their perspective. Paul is not saying that the Gospel is nonsense no matter who and how we look at it. Not at all, for he affirms in this very text that the Gospel is “the power of God”, the “wisdom of God”, and that it is an “imparted wisdom” among “the mature”.

Why would he call it “wisdom” in one place, and “folly” in another? Furthermore, is God irrational? Does God want us to understand Him and His ways as nonsense? Again, this can’t be. I believe what Paul is telling us in all this is that it is actually the nonbeliever who is left with foolishness, folly, nonsense, etc. Because of man’s pride and disobedience, the word of God, which is wisdom, becomes nonsense in their eyes. And what in actuality is a bunch of ridiculous nonsense (world’s knowledge), becomes “wisdom”. There is a reversal. Notice that he follows up 1.18 with a quote from Isaiah:

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

Let’s keep reading though:

“Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Bingo! There is the reversal that takes place. The clay now pretends to be the potter and says to its creator, “He did not make me” and “He has no understanding.” God and His word are folly. Stupid. Nonsense.

The creature acts as though he is the source of knowledge/truth and is beyond knowing. He “hides” from the Lord and claims that no one sees or knows him. Yet, as Paul will later explain, it is God whose wisdom is “secret and hidden” and judge of all. Total reversal. Man playing God.

(2) Notice the call for battle:

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”

I can picture Paul standing in a ring with the scrolls lifted up and taunting the audience, “Who here thinks they can defeat these? Bring it on!” Does this sound like an affirmation of “common ground”? Not at all. Paul is not looking to cozzy up to the wisdom of the world, for “God made foolish the wisdom of the world”! There is no contest.

(3) 1.21 suggests a number of important things: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

Notice that the world does NOT know God through wisdom. Again, we have to be careful. As mentioned above, Paul calls the Gospel “wisdom”. “Wisdom”, in and of itself, is not the issue, else we would run into a contradiction. The issue is…WHAT wisdom. WHO’s wisdom? Here, Paul is stating that the world cannot come to know God through its wisdom. You simply cannot begin where nonbelievers begin and then reason to God. Instead, “it pleased God through the folly of what WE PREACH to save those who believe.”

We birth Christians through the preached word, namely, the “word of the cross”; not any other way. I believe this is confirmed later:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this,

Paul made NOTHING known, EXCEPT “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The “word of the cross.” Paul did not seek to find a common ground and then reason from that point to the cross. For this would have been “plausible words of wisdom”, “lofty speech or wisdom.” Instead, he began where he wanted people to end – Christ and him crucified.

(4) Notice that this “wisdom of God” was “secret and hidden”. This, i believe, is just another way of stating that the world cannot come to know God through its own wisdom/thinking. The true wisdom was hidden. It was a secret. You’re not going to find out the secret by your own wisdom. God has to tell us the secret. He has to “reveal” what was hidden. We are at His mercy, not the other way around. Paul continues,

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

First, notice that God does not keep this wisdom a secret and hidden. He reveals it! But how? “Through the Spirit”.

At this point, some charismatics insert an idea that Christians are to have these “prophecy sessions”, where in some crazy, ecstatic fit, God reveals things, which of course, all appears folly and nutty to the world. I would agree that all of that is nutty, but for other reasons. That is a far cry from what Paul is stating.

Notice that Paul affirms what we have stated above; we can’t reason to the cross with worldly wisdom. “No one comprehends the thoughts of God…” Yet, Paul goes on to state that the Spirit of God DOES understand the thoughts of God AND was given to “reveal” these thoughts! Paul then, in turn, “impart(s) this in words”. If we stay in context, what is “revealed” and “impart(ed) in words” is the “word of the cross”, “Jesus Christ and him crucified”, the “folly of what we preach to save…”

(5) Now we arrive at the verse that got my attention to begin with:

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I believe Paul’s question here is rhetorical, in light of everything he has already stated. The “natural person” can NOT understand the mind of the Lord. The “natural person” can NOT instruct God. BUT, “WE have the MIND of Christ!”

How? Through the revelation of God. The Scriptures! The reason why Paul would not stand to be judged by unbelievers is because the “word” he “preached” are the thoughts of God, who in turn is our creator, maker, and definer of reality. God is truth. God is the standard. Apart from Him, there is nothing. There is no wisdom, there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. Thus, there is no basis upon which to “judge”.

Concluding thoughts from observations:

Christians have got to get back to preaching the scriptures. That is to be our content, our message. God’s “thoughts” relayed to the world. God is not going to be known through Intelligent Design. You can’t get to the cross from cosmological and teleological arguments. The “hidden” God becomes known through his “revealed” thoughts, the Scriptures.

But you object, “yeah, but Jason, my neighbor thinks it is foolish. He’s not going to listen. We’ve got to work him up to that. We’ve got to find some common ground. If we can at least get the atheist to concede an “Intelligent Designer”, then we can go from there to “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

My friend, it doesn’t work that way. What you don’t seem to understand is that it is a LEAP to go from some vague “Intelligent Designer” to “Jesus Christ”. There is nothing in the Intelligent Design or classical “proofs” for God (which is all ID is) that necessarily infers the God revealed in Scripture. It is IMPOSSIBLE to get all of what Scripture reveals out of rocks, stars, dirt, atoms, DNA, or anything else. It requires just as much of a leap to go from “Nature reveals a designer(s)” to “Jesus Christ is Lord” as it does to go from ”God does not exist” to “Jesus Christ is Lord”.

That gap is not something you and i can walk someone over through lofty speech and the so-called wisdom of the world. There is no half-way house. An “agnostic” is in just as much bad shape as an “atheist.”

Faith is not something we muster up in ourselves or in others. No, we preach the “folly” of the “word of the cross.” And God, as He sovereignly sees fit, will take that word and resurrect that person from “natural” to “spiritual.” When that takes place, the “power of God” is “demonstrated.” There is no other explanation for it. God designed it in such a way that you can’t explain it apart from His own explanation. You can’t think of this on your own. You can’t start as some autonomous man, pick your own starting point, and then reason to it. It is God’s sole prerogative and creative power, working with His revelation, so that “no flesh might boast.”

You might think that you are leading men to the cross with grandiose arguments and scientific analyses, but you are mistaken my friend. God is not known through these. Salvation might come to a person on the occasion of such arguments, it might come on the occasion of reading Josh McDowell, but that doesn’t mean that these things CAUSED the end result.

Men, apart from being born from above, apart from being born of the Spirit, will never accept the Gospel because in their rejection of revelation, they are left to their irrational sensuality which can never reason to Jesus Christ and him crucified. The problem is not the Gospel. The problem does not lie with God’s thoughts. The problem lies with the sinner whose scripture-less presuppositions make no room for that which is spiritual, for that which is true wisdom and knowledge. But in that, they think THEY are the wise ones. They think THEY are the rational ones. They think THEY are the logical ones. Far from it.

Apart from revelation, unbelievers are utterly bankrupt and have no grounds upon which to “judge” we who have the mind of Christ as revealed in the Scripture. They instruct no one.

Friends, the “intellectual” battle has already been won. In fact, there never really was a battle. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that the world can contend against God’s word. Do not seek to twist Scripture in order to make it seem more “plausible” to the world.

Assume the world’s “wisdom”, not as an embrace, but to expose it for the self-contradictory nonsense that it is. Fill that hole with the “word of the cross”, then sit back and watch God demonstrate His power. The presuppositional approach is truly the reformed approach to apologetics.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace,

Jason Bradfield aka kingneb

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Comments
  1. rickyroldan says:

    Excellent work Jason! Concise and to the point.

  2. rickyroldan says:

    So do any Vantilians object? 😉

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