An Unsound Refutation of Presuppositionalism

An Unsound Refutation of Presuppositionalism

Updated: Apr 12

In a recently-posted video featuring Dr. Richard Howe, Capturing Christianity has continued contributing to the onslaught of presenting regurgitated criticisms against the presuppositional method. There would normally be nothing wrong with presenting alleged defeaters of a particular philosophical or apologetical system to show that it is inherently false. The problem, of course, is when defenders of said systems have repeatedly responded to the objection(s), showing how the alleged defeaters are ultimately invalid and meaningless. It would seem, then, that both the host, Cameron, and Dr. Howe are ignorant of this fact given their dialogue in the video, (let alone posting the video to begin with).

An additional point to be taken is that the video is titled: "A Sound Refutation of Presuppositionalism." Keep this in mind as we go through the video trying to figure out where this is the case. Remember, this video is supposed to act as a refutation (a showing that Presuppositionalism is false) by presenting "sound" premises, that is, premises that are true. The video is below:

There are two criticisms raised by Dr. Howe against the presuppositional method in the video:

  1. The confusion of ontology and epistemology.

  2. Any world religion can use the same type of argument.

Confusing Ontology and Epistemology


This is perhaps Dr. Howe’s go-to criticism when engaging presuppositionalists. He has repeatedly brought this up in discussion with other presuppositionalists, written about it in the Christian Apologetics Journal, as well as in a discussion between him, Dr. Jason Lisle, and Dr. Scott Oliphint some years back. Howe states in the video:

“This is what I think is the perineal mistake in all that I’ve read of all the presuppositionalists that I’ve read, including Bahnsen’s material...when they define Presuppositionalism they say it this way: The assumption of God is the precondition of knowledge. But when they try to explain what that means, what they end up defending is: God is the precondition of knowledge.” (6:08-6:31).

We must first acknowledge the fact that not all presuppositionalists are as equally well-read as one another, let alone on a gargantuan level such as Bahnsen. Our intellectual imperfections and shortcomings play a role in Howe’s statement here, to be sure. What is inexcusable, however, is Howe’s accusation of this matter directly after stating that he’s read presuppositional literature “including Bahnsen.” He further says:

“…every place I’ve ever read - any presuppositionalist trying to explain [that the assumption of God is a necessary precondition for knowledge] - he always ends up explaining how God is the precondition.” (7:32-7:40)

The answer to the alleged confusion of ontology and epistemology within Presuppositionalism can be summed up in literally one sentence. Why is the assumption of God a necessary precondition for knowledge? If man does not have knowledge of God at the outset, then he’s helplessly entrapped in subjectivism. That’s the entire answer. By way of analogy, if we assume for the sake of the argument Darwinian evolutionary theory, man is the highest order of being, superior to all other evolved lifeforms. There is no higher being in existence that created him, no creator of the universe, no higher moral authority, and no higher authority of knowledge. The ultimate metaphysical and epistemological truths of the universe rely solely on the sufficiency of man’s mind. But since man, by his very constitution, is fallible, finite, and subjective, he cannot escape the problem of egocentrism. And egocentrism can only ever end in subjectivism and therefore skepticism. Likewise, if we do not start with the objective revelation of God at the outset, we can only definitionally start with our subjective experience. And if subjective experience is the inevitable epistemic and psychological state of man, he’s reduced to subjectivism, and subjectivism leads to skepticism. Ergo, revelation from God (i.e. “the assumption of God”) is a necessary precondition for knowledge. That’s the epistemological side of Presuppositionalism.


The presuppositionalist can thus present the following epistemological transcendental argument:

P1: For human knowledge (p) to be the case, man must have revelation from God who is the sole deposit and giver of any and all knowledge (q) because this is a precondition for human knowledge (p).

P2: It is the case that all men do possess knowledge (p)

C: Therefore, it is the case that all men have revelation from God who is the deposit and giver of any and all knowledge (q).


Classicalism objects to this, of course, arguing that we cannot begin with knowledge of God because we aren’t God. We must begin with the self before we work our way to knowing about God. However, when pushed on this issue, Classicalism doesn’t really give anything to substantiate the claim. It’s usually just taken for granted, which results in question-begging in argumentation. Who says it can’t be both? Who says we can’t begin with knowledge of God and ourselves simultaneously? That this isn’t a false dichotomy? The presuppositional answer takes what the Bible says prima facie: God made man in His image and therefore everything man does - every aspect of his experience - quite literally images his Creator. Knowledge of God is not known merely through the created order (Rom. 1), but also innately within all people. In fact, Romans 1 is a testament to this truth. Paul doesn't say that God Himself is revealed through the created order, but rather His attributes. Since all people harbor inescapable revelation of God, then all people inescapably begin with the "assumption of God" at the outset of their experience, contra Howe’s confusion.


To help out Dr. Howe who repeatedly states he’s found no solution to this problem in presuppositional literature (which is grossly incorrect), I’ll quote Bahnsen from just one of many instances where he addresses this issue directly:


“God only is wise (Rom. 16:27), and He has made the world according to His wisdom (Ps. 104:24). Man cannot search out God (Job 11:7), for God’s thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts (Isa. 55:8f). Consequently, man cannot know God and, hence, God’s world without revelation; a vain man who rejects God’s revelation will certainly never get understanding (Job 11:12). The Lord is the one who teaches man knowledge (Ps. 94:10). It is He who leads man in the truth and instructs him (Ps. 25:5, 8f., 12; 71:17; Isa. 54:13; John 6:45). Thus God tells us to apply our hearts unto His knowledge if we are to know the certainty of the words of truth (Prov. 22:17-21). ‘Attend unto my wisdom; incline thine ear to my understanding that thou mayest preserve discretion and that thy lips may keep knowledge’ (Prov. 5:1f., KJV).


Man must begin with the revealed truth of God if he is going to have knowledge. Therefore, humble submission to God’s Word must precede all of man’s intellectual pursuits, and he must renounce the arrogant independence of secular thought. ‘Talk no more proudly; let not arrogance come from thy mouth, for Jehovah is a God of knowledge’ (1 Sam. 2:3). All knowledge is founded in Him and His revealed Word; hence no man dares to challenge God’s Word. Man must begin with the truth of God’s Word in order to obtain knowledge of any area, for when he attempts to proceed in an autonomous fashion he will end up in the darkness of total ignorance if he is consistent. The declaration of the Psalmist is ‘In thy light shall we see light’ (36:9). Man cannot attain to knowledge without a prior knowledge of God and His revelation; he must begin with God in order to find out about anything else at all.


Without the light of God’s revelation man would be at a loss to self-generate the light of knowledge. Because God is the Lord and source of all knowledge it is necessary for man to presuppose the revealed truth of God before he can meaningfully pursue knowledge of any field and have theoretic grounding or direction for science and philosophy. We can see light only within the prior light of God. It is the Lord who must enlighten our darkness (Ps. 18:28); thus it is the entrance of His words that gives us light and understanding (Ps. 119:30). Scripture must be presupposed if man is to have understanding; consequently he cannot presume to utilize self-wrought understanding to decide if Scripture should be accepted. We can see light only in the light of God, and God gives this light by the entrance of His Word.” (Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated & Defended, 32-33).

"Islam Can Use the Same Argument"

Later in the video, Cameron brings up a further "difficulty" that Presuppositionalism faces, namely, that a muslim can use the same argument. Howe then talks about using muslim "Presuppositionalism" against another presuppositionalist to show Presuppositionalism's illogicality:

"...I began to argue as a presuppositionalist muslim. And everything this Christian said to me, I said, 'The problem is you're not presupposing the self-authenticating, infallible word of the Quran. That's your problem.'...There's no way to adjudicate between [different religions using the same presuppositional claim]."(17:21-18:04)

With all due respect to our brother in Christ, Dr. Howe, this is just embarrassing. This one quote alone proves either that Dr. Howe is lying when he says he's read presuppositional literature "including Bahnsen" (which I don't think, and I hope isn't, the case), or that he has never read presuppositional literature with a genuinely open mind or clear understanding of what's going on. This criticism is married to the other alleged defunct aspect of Presuppositionalism which is committing oneself to fideism. If we're all allowed to arbitrarily pick a worldview and argue in a circular fashion to defend it then there's no knowledge to be had after all, right?


The simplest and most straightforward refutation to this is to point out why he, as a muslim presuppositionalist, is arguing that the Quran is self-authenticating and attesting. Where does it say that? You see, the basis for the Christian making that argument about the Bible is precisely because of the fact that the Bible says so....in the New Testament. Should Howe have ever argued in this fashion to a well-learned presuppositionalist, his argument would've been taken apart in seconds. He could've perhaps gone to Exodus 3:14 where God attests to His own authority. But how then do we know that all of the Quran came by His authority? The Christian's answer to the Bible's veracity lies in Paul's words to Timothy where he states that all Scripture is quite literally breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). This is further substantiated by Peter's words about Paul when he likens Paul's letters to the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Where do we see this type of self-authentication in the pages of the Quran?


We can further press Dr. Howe's tactic of playing as a muslim presuppositionalist by pushing him on the issue of the knowability of Allah. How do we know about this god he's espousing? According to Islam theology, the doctrine of Tanzih states that Allah is so transcendent that he is not affected by our actions and attitudes. How is it possible to know about this sort of god when he's so far removed transcendentally in the first place? This is made worse when we learn of another doctrine - Mukhalafa. This states that Allah is so different from his creatures and the created order that he cannot be properly described by human categories. And yet the Quran is one big book describing this god in terms of human categories!


Again, we can push Dr. Howe further. How, in your worldview, do you make sense of unity and plurality? What solution do you have for the Problem of the One and the Many if Allah is one god and one person? How can you justify one universal and yet many particulars given he is the creator? How can you justify there being unity and yet diversity simultaneously in the universe? The Christian worldview and God gives an exhaustive answer to the problem simply in laying out the trinitarian nature of Yahweh.


We could keep going about how the Hadith is factually absurd in claiming that Adam was 90 feet tall, that when you fall asleep while praying Satan literally pees in your ears, how the gender of a child is determined by whoever climaxes first during sex and yet the Hadith is considered to be as equally infallible as the Quran in Islam. We can then go on to point out the contradictions it holds between its pages and the Bible when it purports to be a continued revelation of Allah, and on and on we go. Dr. Howe has not presented anything close to a meaningful critique or criticism against Presuppositionalism in this regard.


Conclusion


As of now I'm still currently waiting for a "sound refutation" of the presuppositional method in apologetics as the title of the video purported it to be. A sound premise is a premise in which its contents are factually true. A refutation would be something that proves the falsity of a system. There was no premise in the video which proved to be factually correct in regards to showing the logical absurdity of Presuppositionalism, and from this point alone it follows that there was no refutation.


During the entire video, every time a charge was brought up against Presuppositionalism it consisted of Dr. Howe saying something to the effect of, "Nothing that I have seen or no presuppositionalist whom I've ever spoken with has shown x, y, or z." That in and of itself is not a sound premise to go about refuting a philosophical system and any apologist should know better. Just because you haven't engaged with a presuppositionalist who knows the philosophical "ins and outs" of the system doesn't mean there isn't an answer to be found. He disingenuously leaves out quotes from the Bahnsen/Sproul debate to make his case, and doesn't cite the alleged paragraph where Van Til contradicts himself. And whenever Dr. Howe wasn't talking about not being shown x, y, or z from presuppositionalists or presuppositional literature, he would straight up botch the Presuppositional position over certain topics.

  • From his belief that Presuppositionalism confuses ontology and epistemology he (and Cameron) have proven they have no clue what revelational epistemology is.

  • From bringing up the fact that any other world religion can use the same argument (successfully) they've proven they don't understand the nature of self-authentication, authorization, and attestation.

  • From bringing up the fact that any other world religion can use the same argument (successfully) they don't understand the use of reductio ad absurdum in Presuppositionalism.

  • From bringing up Islamic presuppositionalism they've proven inadequate study of the holy books in Islam and the contents, doctrines, and philosophical implications therein.

...and this is all being written by someone with no formal education whatsoever. With all due respect to brother Howe, he is a great example of how someone can have extremely high credentials and yet not have a clue what they're talking about, especially when someone with no formal education knows more about the subject than he does.


In short, though it very well may be the case that some presuppositionalists conflate the ontological and epistemological aspects of the apologetic together, this has not been the case historically since its inception or in presuppositional literature. Bahnsen alone repeatedly makes this clear in his books, let alone in the plethora of apologetics tapes he's recorded on. God is the ontological grounding for intelligibility, as both parties agree. But knowledge from the objective God is also a precondition for knowledge to escape the subjective predicament of man's experience. Second, the argument that any religion can mimic the presuppositional procedure and that that shows its absurdity is laughable and shows more than anything that the critics don't have a clue what they're criticizing. Have they not heard of the "two-fold apologetic procedure" from literally any presuppositional literature? Have they not heard of a reductio argument? Do they have any understanding on what self-authentication means? It is one thing to understand an opposing viewpoint and go on to attempt refutation of it by giving accurate presentation. It's another thing to not even understand the opposing position and giving "refutation" on strawman arguments.


Capturing Christianity has embarrassingly failed at soundly refuting Presuppositional apologetics, nor am I sure they even know what that entails. They invited a fellow classicalist on a video interview, talked about things they don't know what they're talking about (even though they think they do), making sure to propound the fact that no presuppositionalist has given them adequate answers, and then calling that a sound refutation to the apologetic system as a whole. And when taking it upon themselves to determine what Presuppositionalism believes (such as Howe interpreting Bahnsen's words for him in one debate and not taking into account his books at the same time), they completely skewer the position. The video has been nothing if not a testament that most of our classical brothers don't have a clue about opposing theological/apologetic positions and erroneously attaching the word "refutation" to something that doesn't even have sound premises to begin with.



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