The "Problem" of Epistemology

Apologetics

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Colossians 2:1-3

INTRODUCTION

 

One of the common challenges to a presuppositional apologetic is that of epistemology. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge; a secular definition would even go so far as to add, that study in which we find the distinction between justified belief and opinion. We can agree with this definition formally, but not foundationally.

The classical apologist will often smirk as he asks the presuppositional apologist, sarcastically, I might add, “how do YOU know God exists? You presuppose His existence, but you can’t live up to your own standard!”

In other words, all of these presuppositional apologists are going around questioning the epistemological basis of the atheist, and when the atheist gives some popular answer, the presuppositionalist follows that up with, “Ah, but how do you know that according to your worldview?”

It seems at this point the atheist could just turn and ask the same question to the apologist! This is largely why presuppositionalism is written off by many lay people and scholars alike. They do not think we have a convincing answer to give for this supposed problem. However, both Christian apologists, classical and presuppositional, believe that the Word of God is the ultimate authority. Why then do we disagree on how people come to knowledge? Why can not the presuppositionalist presuppose God in his thinking? After all, we are commanded to do that in Scripture (Ex 20).

A DISTINCTLY CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY

Presuppositional apologetics is probably not the best name for this method. It’s too ambiguous. This method would be better described as the Biblical way to present a comprehensive Christian philosophical system of thought. It is the presentation of Christianity as a unit. With that in mind, we take into account, even build wholly upon, Reformed Christian theology as we present the faith to the non-believer.

Now, the goal is for us not to ignore some aspects of our theology in order to “build bridges” between us and the non-believer. That would prove to be fatal, doctrinally and practically speaking. The goal, rather, is for us to have a head-on collision, our worldview crashing into the non-believer’s worldview; and this is what presenting Christianity as an all-encompassing philosophy inevitably does. Cornelius Van Til put it this way:

The Reformed apologist throws down the gauntlet and challenges his opponent to a duel of life and death from the start. He does not first travel in the same direction and in the same automobile with the natural man for some distance in order then mildly to suggest to the driver that they ought perhaps to change their course somewhat and follow a road that goes at a different slant from the one they are on.

According to a Christian worldview, if it really be a worldview, we must see all facts through the lens of faith, as having come into existence from the very hands of God. This means that there would be a distinct epistemology, anthropology, teleology, and psychology for the Christian. These schools are not to be seen as neutral. They either belong to the Christian worldview, or they belong to the godless worldview.

In other words, the Christian does not share an abstracted epistemology with the atheist. The atheist assumes the bruteness of fact and that the mind is ultimate, while the Christian assumes all facts to be what they are by virtue of God creating them, and sees reason as being derivative, not ultimate.

So, we get asked the question again, “couldn’t the atheist just ask you the same thing, ‘how do you know that to be true?’” No, they cannot consistently do this. The reason they cannot do this is because the non-believer assumes brute fact as truth before the conversation even begins.

They do this outrightly by excluding God from the picture. There is then nothing to make facts what they are. Since they do this, they must admit that truth is either unintelligible or non-existent, and that the conversation being had is completely futile. That is, if they want to be consistent. On the other hand, the Christian appeals to the God of Christianity as the creator of all facts, the reason for unity and plurality in the universe, the basis of all knowledge. The Christian then has a basis for thinking truth is intelligible, for thinking facts have an objective explanation and meaning.

We are now at an impasse with the unbeliever.

How do we know God exists? We know God exists in virtue of the fact that we, as human beings, are created as Imago Dei (image of God). Therefore, we are created with an innate knowledge of God. This knowledge is not learned, it is “built in” from the time God knits the human together in their mother’s womb. Thus, there is no reason to ask, “how do you know that?” We all know it!

You may say, “nah, the non-believer will never go along with this.” Well, we don’t really expect him to. Scripture says that the natural man will suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (Rom 1:18-20) Though all people know God, in their sin, they suppress this knowledge of Him. They even know all things exist because those things were created by God, but this too is suppressed within unregenerate minds.

NOTE:

When following this train of thought, it is paramount to understand what is being said. Van Til would observe that knowledge of the world around us depends first upon knowledge of ourselves, but knowledge of ourselves occurs, logically, after we first have true knowledge of God. This true knowledge of God is inherent in the fact that we are creatures. This doesn’t deal so much with the problem of sin, which is ethical in nature, but rather it deals with our metaphysical (being) relationship with the triune God of creation. (The Defense of the Faith, 64)

METAPHYSICAL AND ETHICAL DISTINCTIONS

It is true, in a sense, that the non-believer and the Christian have much in common when it comes to metaphysical reality. Let’s follow after Van Til and Kuyper and use logic as an example. All men, believer or non-believer, in Adam or in Christ, believe in the same formal principle of logic. However, where the two groups differ is foundational. In other words, we disagree concerning the philosophy of logic, not formal logic. Again, Van Til writes:

All men do agree upon it as a formal principle; but the two classes of men differ on the question of its foundation and application.

He goes on to write:

Theism holds that all predication presupposes the existence of God as a self-conscious being, while anti-theism holds that predication is possible without any reference to God. This at once gives to the terms “is” and “is not” quite different connotations. For the anti-theist these terms play against the background of bare possibility. Hence “is” and “is not” may very well be reversed. The anti-theist has, in effect, denied the very law of contradiction, inasmuch as the law of contradiction, to operate at all, must have its foundation in God.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Van Til is saying that there is no basis, or reason, to believe, in the non-believer’s worldview, that “is” and “is not” are static truths. In fact, just the opposite is the case. If their worldview is true, there really is no way to objectively know what “is” and “is not” means! This applies to any other claim the non-believer wants to make.

So, while the unbeliever formally uses logic just as we Christians use logic, and many unbelievers have even accomplished greater feats than many Christians because of this, they deny the foundation which makes their proper use of logic possible in the first place. Their “background” as Van Til puts it, is not the Christian God, it is a void in which chance rules supreme.

While there is a metaphysical, or formal, sameness between the Christian and the non-Christian, there is a sharp irreconcilable difference when speaking ethically, or covenantally. The unbeliever places facts according to a foundation which is really non-existent.

This is typical and expected from a person in a covenantal relationship with God in Adam. However, those in a covenantal relationship with God in Christ see the world for what it is, God’s handiwork. Thus the foundation or “background” which causes all facts to have objective meaning, which allows for factual relationships as well as distinctions, is the Christian, triune God.

HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTION

The believer and unbeliever have two different foundations for epistemology. The unbeliever’s epistemology presupposes the ultimacy of human reason while the Christian epistemology presupposes derived reason which comes from a constitutional God. Thus, there is no meeting ground here. We must now seek to expose this folly to the non-believer. Their worldview doesn’t “work”. Our task is to demonstrate that as best we can while we also share the Gospel with them in hopes God will draw them to Himself (Jn 6:44).

“How do you answer your own question, Christian? ‘How do you know things? What is your epistemological basis?’”

The answer is simple. We do not believe in the ultimacy of human reason, we believe that reason is derivative and therefore man “thinks God’s thoughts after Him.” This is nothing more than one side thinking human reason is ultimate in their sin, man serving as a basis for their epistemology, and one side thinking God is ultimate and human reason is derivative. However, to presuppose the ultimacy of human reason one must then appeal to brute facts and, if consistent, must admit knowledge is unattainable. If the Christian God is presupposed as the basis for epistemology, this problem vanishes.

ENDING THOUGHTS

When the question of epistemology is asked, it must first be asked, which version of epistemology? The one founded on sand, or the one founded on an immutable, all-knowing God, whom all people are, from the outset, created knowing? The very fact that Scripture reveals to us that all people are created Imago Dei and therefore know God answers the epistemological conundrum. Moreover, the Scripture only need reveal that fact because we suppress that truth in righteousness. We know it apart from Scripture, we know God by virtue of our creatureliness, but we try to “get rid” of this knowledge.

Claiming that the presuppositionalist has no epistemological foundation, just like the unbeliever, and in this sense we are all in the same boat fundamentally, would be like claiming that humans aren’t born with an intellect. Our claim is that man knows God exists but denies this truth in their sin. Man did not learn he was Imago Dei, he was born knowing it. Do rational human beings deny that they were born with an intellect and that this intellect is self-evident? If not, why do we deny that we are born Imago Dei? Do we discover intellect? Do we discover Imago Dei? Neither fact is discovered, both are simply there from birth.

Additional Links:

Pro Rege, by Abraham Kuyper

The Defense of the Faith, by Cornelius Van Til

 

Contact the Author:

sommerjosh@live.com

Co-founder, editor, and contributor of The Reformed Collective. He is a member and pastoral intern at Word of Life Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO. He has co-coordinated the evangelism ministry at Grace Bible Church in San Diego, CA. At present he is pursuing a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M. Div. He currently resides in Overland Park, KS with his wife, Christina.

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