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August 12, 2011

In a recent Facebook conversation, I began with this question:

“How does natural theology differ from what Paul refused to do in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:18–2:5)? Is it a different thing? Does Paul’s reluctance have to do with the time or setting? Or is that what Paul was talking about?”

A young man who’s become quite heavily involved in apologetics engaged me in conversation. His last question was whether I am a presuppositionalist. This was my response.

I am a presuppositionalist, but not a hard-core Bahsenist or even VanTilian (to their followers, I suppose, I would not qualify as a presuppositionalist). My master’s thesis at Trinity was on the apologetics of Carl Henry, a rationalistic presuppositionalist. Kevin Vanhoozer, one of my advisors, suggested I title my thesis “Varieties of Presuppositional Apologetics” and cover several apologists. I confined my main subject to Henry, but also read Van Til, Clark, Carnell, Schaeffer, Ramm, and others (I don’t think I read Bahnsen).

I begin with the basic assumption that our thinking should be consistent whatever academic division hat we’re wearing at the time. Is it true that everyone knows God exists? Does everyone really know God’s law at least on a rudimentary level? If so, why should we, when switching over to philosophy or apologetics, start acting like we have to prove it to people? Are the unsaved really darkened in their understanding because of their sin? Do they really suppress the truth in unrighteousness? If so, then we are not talking with neutral people; we can’t begin on neutral ground as if everyone is approaching the evidences or arguments from the same vantage point.

Now, how we employ these starting points can vary. They can be used authoritatively, with Van Til, or offered more as a hypothesis, with Carnell and Ramm (which VT called “throwing the facts over their shoulder into the abyss”!).

Is this legitimate? Some will say that the demands of good historiography or philosophy of religion will require neutrality, at least with respect to the handling of the arguments and evidences. So we have to pretend that we are approaching the material in a neutral, objective way when talking with people of different beliefs. I’m not enamored with either discipline enough to want to be constrained by such requirements. Let those who do have at it. We have the intellectual right to start with our presuppositions without having to defend them all the way down, and then we have to deal properly with historical and natural fact and use sound logic. But our goal (or my goal, anyway–to proclaim the truth of Christ and draw people to him), like our presuppositions, will govern what’s in the middle and how we present it.

I said I’m not a hard core Bahsenist or VanTilian, but I find things of value in both their work. I’m puzzled about the notion that people cannot rightly interpret anything apart from self-consciously starting with Christian presuppositions while somehow there’s an exception when it comes to employing the transcendental argument (and other favorite arguments of presuppositionalists). If there’s a blanket block in people’s understanding, our only weapon is prayer. (I think Schaeffer resolves this problem, by the way.) However, having said that, I think the TA is appropriate for some people, and I like that Bahsen and Van Til’s method is rooted in their theology. I agree with VT (against Warfield and others in his train) that Christian apologetics is *Christian* apologetics. It comes at the end of the theological encyclopedia. What comes *before* the commencing of theology, in classical apologetics, is more correctly philosophy of religion.

A note about my initial question: I think this question needs to be taken seriously by classical apologists, for what they do sounds a lot like reasoning as the Greeks did. I think it was Carl Henry whose answer was that we have different starting points, but Paul didn’t make that distinction. He said he didn’t come “with lofty speech and wisdom”. That’s what the Greeks did with their reason being their only resource. If classical apologetics doesn’t violate Paul’s own approach here, then we have to assume a) it’s a matter of preference, or b) it’s a relative matter of time and circumstances.

A reader of that Facebook conversation wrote to say he doesn’t think Paul was criticizing natural theology. He wrote, “I don’t read Corinthians that way at all. Paul was critiquing bad philosophy, and autonomous reason, not simply philosophy and reason.”

I responded a follows (which includes some repetition):

John, do you think Plato, Aristotle, and the rest up to Paul were doing bad philosophy? That you used the phrase “autonomous reason” suggests you’re in the presuppositional camp, and that they *did* do bad philosophy. Theirs was philosophy based on reason alone without revelation. But what else is natural theology? The various theistic proofs are not presented as grounded in revelation but as being in keeping with the generally accepted canons of philosophy (the main factor distinguishing theology from philosophy is revelation). Which brings me back to my first question. How does natural theology differ from what Paul refused to do?

I am broadly speaking presuppositional because I think that our apologetics should be *Christian* apologetics, not simply philosophy of religion. The only project of defense the NT knows is that of Christians testifying to Christ–his person and what he has done for us. It always presupposes revealed truth; it is never neutral. I’m not going to criticize PR here, but just say that it is a different project. Of course, classical theists would insist that it is part of apologetics. I don’t see any basis for that in Scripture. It can be interesting to see what reason can get us, to frame general revelation in a formal structure. But I find it interesting that it takes elaborate argumentation to accomplish what happens with everyone just observing the world. And the former is still controversial even among Christian scholars (consider Stephen Evans’ critiques of theistic proofs, for example) while, if the Bible is to be taken as true, simply observing the world is sufficient for even non-philosophers to know God is there (and not *a* God who must then be shown to be the God of the Bible).

So what do you think Paul was refusing to do and why?


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