Knowledge of GodA Response to Apologetic Misunderstandings
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
It is not rare to encounter people who misunderstand presuppositionalism (covenantal apologetics). In fact, even great minds have misunderstood covenantal apologetics in the past. This has been largely due to the philosophical language used in many of our scholarly proponents like Cornelius Van Til. The method continues to be misunderstood both in its theological and philosophical natures, and how, in Reformed Christianity, we relate the two.
I can’t blame those who misunderstand this approach–not everyone has the time to sit down and study this method thoroughly. If great minds misunderstand covenantal apologetics, it is probably because they are endeavoring to write their own works pertaining to their specific areas of expertise while simultaneously disagreeing with us! I think they deserve some credit.
The occasional misunderstanding which washes out into published work is understandable. We are not perfect and this is bound to happen to everyone who writes about things they disagree with, or even things they agree with. However, when a person neglects to pursue a firm grasp on a particular position, yet continues to address it often, the validity of their work must come into question.
I perceive this to be the case with Mr. Richard Bushey of www.ThereforeGodExists.com.
Richard is a friend of mine, an avid blog writer, and a proponent of classical apologetics.
Just recently, our friend Mr. Bushey published an article on his above mentioned website titled ‘Is Certainty of God A Precondition to Knowledge? A Response to Presuppositionalism’.1 But this article, which is titled in such a way as to indicate the address of presuppositionalism as a system, really doesn’t address the method at all.
The entire article really rests upon Richard’s misunderstanding that covenantal apologetics, presumably as a system (or method) according to the title, claims that admitted or recognized absolute certainty (perfect knowledge) of God’s existence is a precondition to all knowledge. This critique falls into the similar error of those who mistake covenantal apologetics for a system that posits belief in God as a requirement for all knowledge. This is absurd. An atheist does not have to believe in God in order to know or correctly use formal logic, for example. So too, the unbeliever’s readily accepted knowledge of God is not the precondition so much as the knowledge of God which is suppressed.
The word ‘certainty’ is used 38 times throughout the article, but it was never accompanied with a formal definition. The word itself means: Not having any doubt about something: convinced or sure.2 It is also described, by the Stanford Encyclopedia, as perfect knowledge.3
Certainty is contingent, not determinative. In other words, our certainty does not determine the truth about a fact. Rather, it is the truth of fact that ought to determine our level of certainty.
If Richard were to interact with any of the primary literature concerning presuppositionalism, he would find that the method advocated by men like Drs. Van Til, Bahnsen, or Oliphint would not condone that absolute certainty be recognized, or admitted, in order to access other knowledge. As we will see, there must be an ethical consideration when dealing with man’s knowledge, especially implanted knowledge. More on this later.
It would be helpful if Richard cited his sources, because I have personally never heard the transcendental argument framed in this way. In any event, though Mr. Bushey’s entire article may be based upon a caricature of presuppositionalism, I will attempt to clarify our method in hopes of clearing up any confusion.
EPISTEMOLOGY AND ONTOLOGY
What must be noted at the outset of our discussion is that Richard’s article makes heavy use of the term certainty. It is possible Richard has misunderstood our claim that everyone knows God (cognitio insita) or knowledge is possible only by virtue of God’s existence (God is the precondition of all knowledge), to mean that everyone must have a recognized certainty of God in order to know anything. I am honestly not sure where he would have heard this.4
I would suggest that our friend re-title his article as to not mislead his readers into thinking that he is actually characterizing the general teachings of presuppositionalism. Knowledge applies to facts acquired, either by study or by virtue of man being created by God. Certainty, on the other hand, applies to a state of being free from doubt. Thus certainty’s level of quality is subject to man’s recognition of it. Richard does not seem to take into account suppression of knowledge when discussing our view of certainty.
On the other hand, he does try to account for the Scriptural mention of sinful suppression in Romans 1, but he does not go so far as to credit presuppositionalism with accounting for such a thing. He writes:
Third, there is a psychological phenomenon known as subliminal knowledge. There are many things that we know but are stored so deep in our subconscious that we do not always have access to them.
Notice however that he does not blame our sin nature for this “subliminal” or suppressed knowledge. Instead, he explains this knowledge by appealing to phenomena. He says:
Perhaps that is how we can best understand when Paul said men have suppressed the knowledge of God (Romans 1:18).
Richard is already assuming a secular psychology, which would no doubt clash with our view, as hermeneutic import for Romans 1:18 instead of allowing the text to speak. This suppression is not a passive phenomenon, but a sinful activity of man. We cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the rebel.
THE PLACE OF PHILOSOPHY
Like everything else under the Lordship of Christ, philosophy has a particular context. That context is properly described as Christian theism. In other words, if by reason we are to judge consistencies and truth, this reason must be submitted first to the Lordship of Christ in order to accurately do so. The natural man doesn’t like this idea. He perceives our reason to be the ultimate reference point by which we judge all things.
Philosophy, like most everything else, has been hijacked by the rebels. It has been ripped from its place of subordination to the Lordship of Christ and placed on a makeshift throne to appear as equal with God. Instead of being seen as a minister it is seen as magisterial, a tool for determining everything. However, this tears philosophy away from faith. Thus there can be no meaningful relationship between faith and reason, and reason will always work to eliminate faith.
Richard’s article does not portray a ministerial philosophy and a magisterial faith. It exemplifies just the opposite. This will be demonstrated demonstrated in the remainder of this article.
Van Til also held that the human being can and does have absolutely true knowledge by virtue of the fact that God is creator of all things. This, however, is not to suggest man has comprehensive knowledge of anything. Man has comprehensive knowledge of not even one fact. Only God possesses comprehensive knowledge. This is integral to our apologetic. 5
Richard goes on, “Ontological certainty is like the certainty that God has. When God is certain, he cannot be wrong. But even when we are certain, there is still a mild possibility that we could be wrong.”
This would be better understood if Richard were to use the term knowledge over certainty, especially in reference to God. God’s knowledge can never be wrong; there is not even a possibility of this. However, Richard goes on to level all certainty across the board. He eliminates room for the sensus divinitatus, or divine sense, neither does he pay mind to analogical thinking. Instead of characterizing presuppositionalism correctly, considering important, pertinent elements, he chooses what he wants to address and plays it off as an accurate representation.
Furthermore, because Richard levels all certainty with a bulldozer of secular, self-imploding thought, he eliminates any possibility for knowledge. Such is the logical outcome of denying qualitatively true knowledge. God has absolute knowledge, true and comprehensive, He is omniscient. By virtue of our creatureliness, we can and must share in this true, analogical knowledge. For Mr. Bushey, it seems like we could be wrong about absolutely everything we supposedly know, and therefore true knowledge is impossible for man.
When discussing analogical knowledge in the context of a Van Tillian apologetic it is important to understand what is being said. Van Til often said, “we must think God’s thoughts after him.” What does this mean? This means that, while we do not have comprehensive knowledge of God, we have true knowledge of God. In other words, to have knowledge of God comprehensively, we would know everything there is to know. However, we do not know everything there is to know, but we do know things which God has revealed to us, and we know these things as God knows them, that is–we know them as true fact. It does not follow from this that we know all true fact, but what we do know of the fact, we know it truthfully.
This brings me to my next point. Van Til observed the distinction between univocal and analogical thinking. In other words, God’s knowledge is determinative and man’s knowledge is subordinate. This is alien to secular, non-Christian philosophies wherein univocal thought reigns supreme. In the case of univocal knowledge, God could not be seen to be anyone other than a “collaborator” with man. All interpretation would be on the same plane. Van Til writes of this view:
We do not think God’s thoughts after him, but together with God we think out thoughts that have never been thought either by God or by man. Non-Christian philosophies hold that human thought is univocal instead of analogical.
To be sure, Van Til is not describing his view here, but rather what it would be like if the non-Christian philosophical, univocal thought were true. Reformed Christianity sees man’s thought as analogical, which is epistemologically and ontologically different from God’s thought in that the former is subordinate while the latter is determinative.
Following this, it must also be said that, “It is not that we are merely brought into existence by God, but our meaning also depends upon God. Our meaning cannot be realized except through the course of history. God created man in order that man should realize a certain end, that is, the glory of God, and thus God should reach his own end.” (The Defense of the Faith, 63) For clarity, Van Til doesn’t mean here that God is progressing through history like His creation, but that God’s purpose, or “end”, in creation was, and is, ultimately His glory.
This is key in understanding why the presuppositionalist sees knowledge of God as a precondition for knowledge of everything else. For Van Til, there are two categories of man’s knowledge; man’s knowledge of God and man’s knowledge of the universe. Now there follows a question of priority: Which comes first? Our knowledge of the universe and thus ourselves? Or our knowledge of God? Van Til again writes:
Thus we have answered our question about temporal priority by answering the question of logical priority. Because man’s knowledge of God is logically more fundamental than man’s knowledge of the universe, we may be indifferent to the question of temporal priority. Even if in our psychological experience we know ourselves and the universe about us before we speak self-consciously of God, we have all the while known God if we have truly known anything else.
In contrast, Richard says, “In particular, everybody who possesses self-awareness is more certain about their own existence than they are about the existence of God.” Thus he divorces knowledge of self from knowledge of God while Van Til believes, along with the majority of presuppositional thinking, that if we have one, it follows we have the other. If the human is seen as a fact, he ought be seen as a fact created by God. The problem is that the unbeliever refuses to acknowledge facts for what they are. This is ethical rebellion, but not lack of knowledge.
If we are to disagree with this then we must make an appeal to brute fact. A brute fact is a fact without any explanation or objective meaning apart from what the human subjectively places upon it. If we make an appeal to brute fact, as Richard inevitably does in his article, we forfeit true knowledge, agreeing with Kant that we can only know something insofar as we see it; but the truthfulness of fact is virtually unintelligible, residing in the unreachable noumenal realm. This isn’t a Christian philosophy–it’s pagan.6
For Richard, it is impossible to know, truthfully, whether or not we, as people, even exist! This is because he is adhering to a non-Christian epistemology. It can then be seen, for Bushey, that the metaphysical bond between man and God is either broken or non-existent. God is then wholly unknowable. To again quote Van Til:
God is man’s ultimate environment, and this ultimate environment controls the whole of man’s immediate environment as well as man himself. The whole of man’s own immediate environment as well as man himself is already interpreted by God. Even the denotation of the whole universe exists by virtue of the connotation or plan of God.
Richard doesn’t begin to address these aspects of the covenantal method. His title, and therefore his entire article, was founded upon a false premise that presuppositionalism conflates voluntary recognition with true knowledge. He implies that covenantal apologists require recognized certainty of God in order to have “access” to knowledge. But this is not a proper representation of our view.
Over against this predication, our method states that knowledge of self logically requires knowledge of God first, but this knowledge of God is suppressed according to our sin nature. This suppression results in doubt, the antonym of certainty; but it is not possible that this doubt should ever be complete. There will always be a remaining knowledge of God even within the worst of reprobates. It is because of this spiritual death that a supernatural act of God is required to “bring forth” the sinner unto new life (Eph 2:1; James 1:18).
In his Institutes, John Calvin writes, concerning the sensus divinitatis:
There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity [divinitatis sensum]. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops.7
We have also stated, up to this point, that man has true knowledge, or understanding, of God and the universe, but he can never hope to have comprehensive knowledge of either. Thus there is a qualitative/quantitative distinction. Richard didn’t interact with this idea either.
It seems as though there is a non-Christian philosophical overlay to Richard’s perception of presuppositionalism. To put it another way, Mr. Bushey may be trying to force presuppositionalism into a secularized framework of interpretation. However, this is not possible with covenantal apologetics because the system itself is the presentation of a distinctly Reformed Christian theology and philosophy. Thus the terms Richard made use of are either redefined in light of the Christian God, or they are thrown out as incompatible.
DEALING WITH SCRIPTURE
I could not write this article without addressing Richard’s use of Scripture.
He says of Romans 1:20, to quote at length:
Integral to this form of presuppositional apologetics is the idea that certainty about the existence of God is innate. Everybody knows that God exists because God has implanted that knowledge in the human mind. Therefore, anybody who claims to be an atheist must be deceiving themselves. They are not really atheists. They already believe in God’s existence. This hangs upon Romans 1:20, which reads, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
The careful reader will probably have noticed that the presuppositionalist seems to have extracted far too much from the text. To suggest that this passage suggests that we have innate knowledge of God is to perform eisegesis. It is to read something into the text that it does not say. Instead, it says that God’s eternal power and divine nature have been seen in the natural world. People can look to the natural world and conclude on that basis that God exists. Anybody who asks themselves, “Why does anything at all exist?” is instantly confronted with God’s existence. But if you try to find a trace of the idea that there is some sort of innate certainty of God on the basis of this passage, you will come up lacking.
Firstly, our brother is guilty of a hasty generalization. He has seen a misrepresentation, or even he himself has misunderstood the method, and he has applied this mistaken view to presuppositionalism as a whole. This becomes most apparent with his use of certainty in the context of covenantal apologetics. He alludes to the sensus divinitatis, claiming that Romans 1:20 doesn’t teach such a thing while neglecting interaction with the doctrine of total depravity.
This is a convenient omission for our friend. It allows him to save his apologetic without colliding, face-first, into his own theology.
He then mentions the self-deception of the non-believer. He is on good ground here. The non-Christian suppresses their knowledge of God in unrighteousness. This is apparent in the text, and I do not think Richard would actually disagree with us here, doctrinally speaking. If he did, he would run into some theological issues.
He claims that this integral claim of the presuppositionalist hangs on one verse. This is not true, but even if it were, Richard engages v. 20 but fails to examine the near context, which is also relied upon by the covenantal apologist. I have never seen covenantal apologetic scholarship hinge the fact that all people know God on Romans 1:20 alone. Again, citations are helpful. Moreover, Dr. Oliphint interacts with different passages of Scripture throughout his work, Covenantal Apologetics. This is also seen in Drs. Van Til and Bahnsen.8
In Psalm 19 we read that all creation pours forth the knowledge of God. It is then necessary to establish that, if a person has true knowledge of even one fact, they have true knowledge of God, because all created facts “proclaim his handiwork (Ps 19:1).” It is not the case, as Richard said, where the natural man must be ran through some rational argument before he can attain this knowledge. No, the natural man has knowledge of God if he has knowledge of anything at all!
That said, is Richard’s interpretation of Romans 1:20 correct? Did he do justice to Scripture in his exegesis? He says this verse means, “People can look to the natural world and conclude on that basis that God exists. Anybody who asks themselves, ‘Why does anything at all exist?’ is instantly confronted with God’s existence.” To be sure, from Romans 1:20, it follows that any direction man turns he is confronted with the terrific reality of God. But that is only the partial meaning of the verse, not the entirety of what is being said.
At this point it may be useful to make a distinction between cognitio insitia, or implanted knowledge, and the cognitio aquisita, the acquired knowledge. The former is immediate and non-ratiocinative, and the latter is ascertained by natural reason. Acquired knowledge is not to be seen as priority over implanted knowledge. The priority given to acquired knowledge results from an Enlightenment understanding of natural theology. This is not the Reformed perspective (Reasons for Faith, 1.1).
Let’s place the verse in its nearer context:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Does the text ever imply that these people never had knowledge of God before? No, the contrary is true. In v. 19 the text states that what can be known about God is (estin) plain to them. The question then becomes, is God actually plain to the non-believer? Estin (ἐστιν) is 3rd Person Singular Present Active Indicative, which means that this knowledge of God is currently plain to all people. It doesn’t become plain after an argument, or after the sinner has first reasonably examined creation.
If anything is eisegesis, it’s Richard’s commentary on Romans 1:20. What can be known about God is known, right now (cognitio insitia), by those who are outside of Christ, because God has already revealed this information to them. In other words, the revelation is already made evident, it needs not become more evident.
Furthermore, when we come to v. 20, we find that God has been and is clearly perceived or seen, by virtue of that which has been created by Him. He is understood through what has been made. Again, it doesn’t say that these people need to reach understanding of God through what has been made, but that they currently understand Him through what has been created.
This is a very bold claim on the part of Scripture. It inflicts damage upon the ego of sinful humanity. People do not like being told what they know. To the natural man, their mind is ultimate; it is the end-all be-all; there is no Lord over it, or so it is thought. They do not want to recognize the reality that they do know God. If knowledge is had at all, knowledge of God is had as well.
Let’s now grant that all men are truly ignorant of God, that atheists are truly atheists. I suppose a pretty good excuse could be made up! Judicially speaking, God would have to pardon them on the basis of His perfect justice and their true innocent ignorance. This seems to be the only road Richard has left to travel. Not only is the conflict in his apologetic, but it has now extended to affect his soteriology and the attributes of God.
The reader would have to completely ignore this passage in order to say that this knowledge is not in and around the human being from birth, or that the natural man had no knowledge of God before it was told them by another person.9
I would also like to briefly point out a couple inconsistencies in Richard’s article before I close. In the beginning of the article he says, “The reason that I am doing this is that contemporary presuppositional apologists will use certainty in this manner. I am assessing their conception of certainty about the existence of God. It does not seem to stand up to serious scrutiny, because nobody has absolute certainty about their faith. Certainty often comes on a sliding scale.”
- I would have to ask, who is Richard talking about here? He mentions one name as far as I can tell, and that is Eric Hovind. While Eric is a good friend of mine and his ministry is greatly appreciated, I do not think the majority of covenantal apologists would consider him a voice for the method. Richard seems to be talking about more than one apologist though, so who are the other ones? Where are their quotes? How would any reader know whether or not he or she should really believe this? It is this sloppiness which led me to accuse Richard of an informal fallacy above.
- He says, “…nobody has absolute certainty about their faith.” Yet, at the end of his article he says, “Many Christians are not even absolutely certain that God exists.” (emphasis mine) Which is it? Is it impossible to have absolute certainty, or is it just rare? Granted, this is not an irreconcilable blunder (it could easily be fixed); however, it is confusing to the reader.
Perhaps this article was a bit long-winded. However, in addition to correcting Richard’s article, or attempting to correct it, I also wanted to clarify some parts of our method which may not have been entirely clear to the reader up to this point. I hope that I have accomplished that, by the grace of God.
To recap, first we discussed the fact that presuppositionalism, as a system, was being addressed by Richard per the title. However, it was being addressed upon the implied false premise that presuppositionalism, as a method, makes the claim that unsuppressed certainty of God is a precondition for knowledge. This is not true. Therefore, much of what has been written here really didn’t need to be addressed since the entire article was built upon a false assumption. The reason I chose to address it was perhaps to help Richard, and other readers, to better understand presuppositionalist thought.
Second, we discussed Van Til’s view of man’s knowledge, which is common throughout the covenantal apologetic community. We talked about man’s knowledge of God and man’s knowledge of the universe. It can be seen that one requires the other, and that knowledge of God is logically more fundamental than man’s knowledge of self and universe. This is important because it deals directly with the epistemological and ontological analogical distinction between God and man.
In conclusion, I would suggest that critics of the method read credible sources from scholarly and other reliable representatives of presuppositionalism. I admire Richard for desiring engagement and interaction concerning our apologetic method, but it would help him and his readers greatly if he were able to provide a more cogent description and address of the covenantal method, making use of sources while citing them in his work. Moreover, I would urge our brother in the area of discernment. It is important that we distinguish between philosophy that may be incompatible with Christian theology. These philosophies are often cloaked in words which seem neutral, but when we look closer, they denote that which is abruptly contrary to our Christian faith.
The Defense of the Faith, by Cornelius Van Til
Christian Apologetics, by Cornelius Van Til
Christian Theistic Evidences, by Cornelius Van Til
Van Til’s Apologetic, by Greg Bahnsen
Covenantal Apologetics, by K. Scott Oliphint
Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology, by K. Scott Oliphint
- Is Certainty of God A Precondition to Knowledge? A Response to Presuppositionalism. ↩
- www.Merriam-Webster.com ↩
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Certainty ↩
- Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology, by K. Scott Oliphint ↩
- The Defense of the Faith, by Cornelius Van Til ↩
- Christian Apologetics, by Cornelius Van Til ↩
- The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin ↩
- Covenantal Apologetics, by K. Scott Oliphint ↩
- Commentary on Romans, by John Calvin ↩