Atheism and presuppositional apologetics

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Dr. Greg Bahnsen became known as the "man atheists fear most" due to Michael Martin's cancellation of their scheduled debate.[1]

Atheism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and other philosophy reference works, is the denial of the existence of God.[2] Paul Edwards, who was a prominent atheist and editor of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defined an atheist as "a person who maintains that there is no God."[3]

Beginning in the latter portion of the 20th century and continuing beyond, many agnostics/atheists have argued that the definition of atheism should be defined as a lack of belief in God or gods.[3][4][5][6]

Presuppositional apologetics is "a branch of Christian apologetics that deals with presuppositions."[7]

James M. Harrison summarized and explained the purpose of Christian Presuppositional Apologetics when he wrote the following concerning its role in the discipline of Christian apologetics:

That which I will attempt to describe in this article is known as presuppositionalism. It is an apologetic method which has had the most impact in Reformed circles, and is most closely associated with Cornelius Van Till, John Frame, and the late Greg Bahnsen.

I should begin by pointing out that the Presuppositional Apologetic does not discount the use of evidences in apologetic reasoning. It does not use evidences in the traditional manner, however. By the traditional manner, I mean using evidences as an appeal to the authority of the unbeliever's autonomous reasoning. The problem is, of course, that the unbeliever cannot reason autonomously. Without God, there would be no possibility of reason. And so the reality of the matter is that every time the unbeliever attempts to reason, he is borrowing from the Christian worldview. That is, he is being inconsistent with his stated presuppositions. And that is the crucial point. Ultimately the intellectual conflict between believers and unbelievers is a matter of antithetical worldviews. The essence of the Presuppositional Apologetic is the attempt to show that the unbeliever's worldview drives him to subjectivity, irrationalism, and moral anarchy. And so the Presuppositional Apologetic calls for the Christian and non-Christian to set side by side their two worldviews and do an internal examination of them both in order to determine whether or not they are consistent even within their own framework. Since God does exist, and since Christianity is true, then any worldview which denies these truths are false and can be demonstrated to be so.[8]

Atheism, epistemology and presuppositional apologetics

See also: Atheism and epistemology

A common and legitimate criticism of the atheist worldview is that atheism is irrational.[9] See: Atheism and irrationality

Epistemology is the analysis of the nature of knowledge, how we know, what we can and cannot know, and how we can know that there are things we know we cannot know. In other words, it is the academic term associated with study of how we conclude that certain things are true.[10]

Greg Bahnsen wrote:

Presuppositional apologetics as taught by Cornelius Van Til urges the Christian to argue with unbelievers in an “indirect” fashion, doing an internal analysis of the unbeliever’s worldview (his fundamental assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics) and comparing it to the worldview revealed in the Bible. Many students of apologetics have come to see the strength of this apologetical challenge when it is applied to the various kinds of views advocated by atheists or materialists. Given the presuppositions of the atheist, he could not make sense out of adherence to the laws of logic (as I tried to show in my public debate with Gordon Stein), nor could he make sense out of the principles and procedures of science itself (as I tried to show in my public debate with Edward Tabash). The atheist cannot give a rational account of the fundamental assumptions of ethics, either. Atheism is philosophically unable to argue ethically, scientifically, or logically against the Christian faith.[11]

The Christian apologist Jason Petersen wrote:

The atheist’s foundation for reasoning must be inductive. The reason being is because in the atheist worldview there is no ultimate starting point for knowledge. It has to be induced. If atheism is true, there can be no universal values - nature is all there is. But nature itself provides no benefit for knowledge. Nature itself is not knowledge. Thus, because there would be no ultimate universal standard for reasoning , there would be no starting point for knowledge. When humans came into existence in an atheist worldview, there wasn’t an embodiment of knowledge in which they could deduce the possibilities, rather, they had to build possible inferences while starting from nothing.

Most atheists agree that their foundation for reasoning is inductive. However, what a lot of people are unaware of is that inductive reasoning does NOT deal in absolutes. It only deals with what is possible or what is probable. This means that given that all of the premises in an inductive argument are true, the conclusion can still be false.

If an atheist agrees that their foundation for knowledge is inductive, then they must live consistently with that implication in order to have a self consistent foundation for knowledge. But if the foundation of knowledge is no more than induction, then it entails that one can not be ultimately certain about anything. If the atheists say that their foundation for knowledge is inductive, but yet they make absolute claims, then the atheist is contradicting their own epistemology. This is because the atheist, who uses inductive reasoning as their foundation for knowledge, has limited themselves to what they believe is probable, but they can’t make absolute claims due to the limitations of inductive reasoning.[12]

Atheism and logic

The Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland belong to the Classical apologetics school of Christian apologetics.

He has lectured on the topic of why naturalism is irrational.[13]

See also: Atheism and logic

A common and legitimate criticism of the atheist worldview is that atheism is irrational (See: Atheism and irrationality and Atheism and critical thinking).[14]

See also: List of logical fallacies that atheists commonly commit at: Atheism and logical fallacies

Atheism cannot account for the laws of logic

See also: Transcendental argument for the existence of God

Concerning atheism and logic, Cold Case Christianity declares:

God is eternal, uncaused, omniscient and omnipotent. He is the all-knowing and all-powerful Creator; the necessary, uncaused first cause of all matter, space and time. He has thoughts and possesses a particular character, essence and nature. Because He is all-powerful and all-knowing, these attributes are perfected (an all-powerful and all-knowing God has the power to eliminate imperfection). The Laws of Logic are simply an attribute and reflection of God’s perfect existence; God does not create these laws, they are an innate and immutable aspect of His nature. As God is necessary for all else to exist, so are the Laws of Logic. They are merely a reflection of His Being, and they permeate all of His creation.

Both the atheist and the theist agree something is eternal, uncaused and necessary. But when the atheist says the Laws of Logic “simply exist”, he’s begging the question; he’s not providing an explanation for the eternal, uncaused and necessary existence of the laws (saying they exist does not provide us with an explanation for their existence). Theists, on the other hand, can make a case for God’s existence from a number of evidential lines, providing a reasonable foundation from which logical absolutes can then be elucidated. In addition, atheism fails to explain how the Laws of Logic can be eternal and uncaused and what role they play in causing all other contingent realities. Theism, on the other hand, accounts for the existence of the Laws of Logic by pointing to the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent uncaused, first cause possessing perfect rationality (by virtue of His limitless power) who also acts as the first cause of all other dependent (contingent) creations.

The Laws of Logic are conceptual. They only exist in the mind. They don’t describe physical behaviors or actions of matter, but instead describe conceptual truths. Logical axioms are statements dealing with conceptual patterns and processes of thought. [15]

Dr. Jason Lisle wrote on atheism's failure to account for the laws of logic:

Reasoning involves using the laws of logic. These include the law of non-contradiction which says that you can’t have A and not-A at the same time and in the same relationship. For example, the statement “My car is in the parking lot, and it is not the case that my car is in the parking lot” is necessarily false by the law of non-contradiction. Any rational person would accept this law. But why is this law true? Why should there be a law of non-contradiction, or for that matter, any laws of reasoning? The Christian can answer this question. For the Christian there is an absolute standard for reasoning; we are to pattern our thoughts after God’s. The laws of logic are a reflection of the way God thinks. The law of non-contradiction is not simply one person’s opinion of how we ought to think, rather it stems from God’s self-consistent nature. God cannot deny Himself ( 2 Timothy 2:13), and so, the way God upholds the universe will necessarily be non-contradictory.

Laws of logic are God’s standard for thinking. Since God is an unchanging, sovereign, immaterial Being, the laws of logic are abstract, universal, invariant entities. In other words, they are not made of matter—they apply everywhere and at all times. Laws of logic are contingent upon God’s unchanging nature. And they are necessary for logical reasoning. Thus, rational reasoning would be impossible without the biblical God.

The materialistic atheist can’t have laws of logic. He believes that everything that exists is material—part of the physical world. But laws of logic are not physical. You can’t stub your toe on a law of logic. Laws of logic cannot exist in the atheist’s world, yet he uses them to try to reason. This is inconsistent. He is borrowing from the Christian worldview to argue against the Christian worldview. The atheist’s view cannot be rational because he uses things (laws of logic) that cannot exist according to his profession.[16]

Transcendental argument for the existence of God

See also: Transcendental argument for the existence of God

Dr. Greg Bahnsen became known as "the man atheists fear most" due to Michael Martin's cancellation of their scheduled debate.[17]

During his debate with Dr. Gordon Stein, Bahnsen pointed out that the atheist worldview cannot account for the laws of logic, but the Christian worldview can.[18][19] See also: Transcendental argument for the existence of God

Presuppositional apologetics and antitheism presupposes theism

Dr. James N. Anderson writes:

"By this rejection of God, agnosticism has embraced complete relativism. Yet this relativism must furnish a basis for the rejection of the absolute. Accordingly, the standard of self-contradiction taken for granted by antitheistic thought presupposes the absolute for its operation. Antitheism presupposes theism. One must stand upon the solid ground of theism to be an effective antitheist."

(Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. xi)

“Antitheism presupposes theism” is one of Van Til’s best lines, because it captures in a nutshell the genius of presuppositional apologetics. It’s not merely that theism is true; it’s not merely that theism can be shown to be true; it’s that theism can be shown to be true by any attempt to prove it false. One can prove theism to be false only if, as a matter of fundamental metaphysical fact, theism is true — which is just to say that antitheism is self-defeating.

The paper I co-authored with Greg Welty gives one line of argument (there are others) in support of Van Til’s pithy and provocative slogan. As we conclude:

[I]f the laws of logic are metaphysically dependent on God, it follows that every logical argument presupposes the existence of God. What this means is that every sound theistic argument not only proves the existence of God but also presupposes the existence of God, insofar as that argument depends on logical inference. Indeed, every unsound theistic argument presupposes the existence of God. And the same goes, naturally, for every antitheistic argument. The irony must not be missed: one can logically argue against God only if God exists.

The last statement is really nothing more than a paraphrase of Van Til. Moreover, our paper sheds light on how one might understand the term ‘presupposes’ in Van Til’s famous statement. (I don’t claim that this is exactly how Van Til meant it, but I do claim that it’s consonant with his overall apologetic vision.) We have argued that the laws of logic should be understood as divine thoughts — more precisely, as divine thoughts about the essential relations between divine thoughts. Thus the relationship between God and the laws of logic is none other than the relationship between God and God’s thoughts.[20]

Presuppositional apologetics and the claim that atheists know God exists

See also: Denials that atheists exist and Atheists doubting the validity of atheism and Argument from religious experience

Christian philosophers and apologists Dr. Cornelius Van Til and Dr. Greg Bahnsen argued there are no atheists and that atheists are actively suppressing their belief and knowledge of God and enigmatically engage in self-deception.[21] The English poet Edward Young wrote in his famous work Night Thoughts that "By night, an atheist half-believes a God."[22]

J.W. Wartick wrote in his article The Unbeliever Knows God: Presuppositional Apologetics and Atheism:

"[A]ll men already know God–long before the apologist engages them in conversation–and cannot avoid having such knowledge… People lack neither information nor evidence… [A]ll men know that God exists… In a crucial sense, all men already are “believers”–even “unbelievers” who will not respond properly by openly professing and living obediently in accordance with the knowledge they have of God." (Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 179-180, emphasis his, cited below).

One crucial point of presuppositional apologetics is that even the unbelieving atheist really does know God. All people have knowledge of God. None can turn from it, none can escape it: everyone knows God. This knowledge is not saving knowledge. Instead, it is knowledge which is suppressed. The knowledge is ignored or even reviled. The quote above from the famed presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen is just one example. C.L. Bolt, a popularizer of presuppositional apologetics, says similarly:

It is in the things that have been created that God is clearly perceived. This perception is, again, so clear, that people have no excuse. Not only do all of us believe in God, but we know God. (C.L. Bolt, cited below)

What are we to make of this claim? What is the point from the presuppositionalist perspective? The claim is firmly rooted in Paul’s discussion of God’s wrath against evil in Romans 1-2 (see the text at the end of this post). Therefore, it behooves all Christians to reflect upon the notion that God is known to all people. Presuppositional Apologists have done much reflecting on these subjects, and here we shall reflect upon their insights.

It is important to outline what exactly it is that this knowledge is supposed to be. Greg Bahnsen notes in Van Til’s Apologetic that the claim is, in part, that “[all people/unbelievers] ‘have evidence’ that justifies the belief that [God] exists”.[23]

Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein Debate

In 1985, Christian apologist Dr. Greg Bahnsen and prominent proponent of atheism Gordon Stein had a debate at the University of California, Irvine regarding the positions of atheism and theism. John Frame wrote regarding the debate in which Dr. Bahnsen used the transcendental argument for the existence of God that "In the end, Stein walked and talked like a broken man."[24] The Greg Bahnsen-Gordon Stein debate was recorded and transcribed and was dubbed "The Great Debate".[25][26]

Greg Bahnsen and Michael Martin

Dr. Greg Bahnsen became known as the "man atheists fear most".[27] This is because Harvard-educated Dr. Michael Martin was scheduled to debate Bahnsen but pulled out of the debate at the "eleventh hour". A press release at the time said that Dr. Martin offered ruses on why he pulled out and didn't want the scheduled debate recorded but the real reason was that "...Michael Martin is afraid that he will be publicly humiliated just as his friend and fellow atheist, Dr. Gordon Stein, was..."[28]

Martin later released his transcendental argument for the non-existence of God (TANG) in 1996 which was rebutted by Christian apologists.[29]

See also

External links


  1. Pushing the Antithesis on Greg Bahnsen
  2. Multiple references:
  3. 3.0 3.1 Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.
  4. Day, Donn R. (2007). "Atheism - etymology".
  5. Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  6. Britain is a less religious country than the United States and the online Oxford Dictionaries offers both the narrow/broad definitions of atheism (As noted in a previous footnote the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is a traditional American dictionary, offers a more narrow definition of atheism similar to the definition that major encyclopedias of philosophy use). Oxford Dictionaries: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.[2]
  7. Presuppositional Apologetics CARM. 5 May 2008
  9. Atheism by Matt Slick
  10. "1", A Christian's Guide to Critical Thinking. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 336. ISBN 1-59752-661-4. Retrieved on 16.2.2012. 
  11. Presuppositional Reasoning with False Faiths by Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen on April 8, 2009
  12. The Epistemological Argument against Atheism
  13. Atheism by Matt Slick
  14. Is God Real? Examining Atheistic Explanations for the Laws of Logic as “Brute Realities”
  15. Atheism: An Irrational Worldview by Dr. Jason Lisle on October 10, 2007
  16. The Great Debate: Greg Bahnsen vs Gordon Stein
  17. Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein: The Great Debate (FULL)
  18. "The Great Debate: Does God Exist?"
  19. Antitheism Presupposes Theism (And So Does Every Other ‘Ism’)
  20. Van Til and Self-deception by Dr. Greg Bahnsen
  22. The Unbeliever Knows God: Presuppositional Apologetics and Atheism by J.W. Wartick
  27. Anon., Press Release