The Aim of Apologetics: How to Argue with Atheists (3/4)

Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture, The Aim of Apologetics: How to Argue with Atheists.

We are aiming to show the objective truth of the Christian system of thought as a whole.
1. We are not defending general theism, but Christian theism in particular.
2. We are defending the objective truth of Christianity, and we are offering an objective proof.

the Reformed apologist maintains that there is an absolutely valid argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christian theism. He cannot do less without virtually admitting that God’s revelation to man is not clear. It is fatal for the Reformed apologist to admit that man has done justice to the objective evidence if he comes to any other conclusion than that of the truth of Christian theism.
-Van Til
3. We are presenting Christianity as a system of thought as a whole.

How shall we argue with the atheist?
We atheist will demand evidence for God’s existence. What is the nature of the evidence that is needed to prove the Christian God? There different kinds of things that exist, and the evidence for those different kinds of things will differ just because they are different kinds of things. The evidence for roses being in a garden is different than evidence for the fact that someone loves you. The nature of the evidence for a claim is dependent upon the nature of the very claim. When proving the existence of God, we must remember that God is not a natural object. We can’t prove God’s existence like we can prove that your car is parked in the parking lot. So what kind of evidence should we be looking for?

Firstly, we must remember that we and the unbeliever are not neutral about the question of God’s existence. The way in which the nature of evidence is determined for the existence of God, already says something about a person’s metaphysical convictions. Metaphysics studies the nature, structure and origin of what exists. When we look at the question of what kind of evidence is needed, one’s metaphysical views will influence the answer. What one thinks of reality in the first place, will determine what he accepts as evidence in the second. I will demonstrate this with two philosophies:

Plato held that one can know something without the benefit of his senses. People can know things in terms of reasoning ability and intuitive ability. Plato had a metaphysical view that there are ideals/universals/forms of things. If you see dogs outside, not only is there such thing as “Bingo, Max, Ginger” but there is also a universal of “dogness” by which those particular dogs participate. There is a non-physical, transcendent ideal of “dogness.” No one ever comes into contact by way of senses with the idea of “dogness.” You can pet Bingo, but you can never pet “dogness.”

David Hume held that you cannot know things apart from your senses. He also held that there is no such thing as a universal. The only things that exist are particular in nature. There is nothing like “dogness” in reality.

One’s metaphysical views seems to determine one’s epistemological view. It works the other way around as well. These two are mutually dependent upon each other. Epistemological views also determines one’s metaphysics. Consequently, there is no neutrality.

As a theist, I would say there is plenty of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist will say, “well that’s not evidence for God, because I have another explanation for those things.” According to the atheistic naturalist, it is not possible to have evidence for God. He will reinterpret everything so they comport to his naturalism. The unbeliever’s autonomy can be considered a personal prejudice.

“The point is this. Not believing in God, we have seen , you do not think yourself to be God’s creature. And not believing in God you do not think the universe has been created by God. That is to say, you think of yourself and the world as just being there. Now if you actually are God’s creature, then your present attitude is very unfair to Him. In that case it is even an insult to Him. And having insulted God, His displeasure rests upon you. God and you are not on “speaking terms.” And you have very good reasons for trying to prove that He does not exist. If He does exist, He will punish you for your disregard of Him. You are therefore wearing colored glasses. And this determines everything you say about the facts and reasons for not believing in Him. You have had your picnics and hunting parties there without asking His permission. You have taken the grapes of God’s vineyard without paying Him any rent and you have insulted His representatives who asked you for it.

I must make an apology to you at this point. We who believe in God have not always made this position plain. Often enough we have talked with you about facts and sound reasons as though we agreed with you on what these really are. In our arguments for the existence of God we have frequently assumed that you and we together have an area of knowledge on which we agree. But we really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly. We really think you have colored glasses on your nose when you talk about chickens and cows, as well as when you talk about the life hereafter. We should have told you this more plainly than we did. But we were really a little ashamed of what would appear to you as a very odd or extreme position. We were so anxious not to offend you that we offended our own God. But we dare no longer present our God to you as smaller or less exacting than He really is. He wants to be presented as the All-Conditioner, as the emplacement on which even those who deny Him must stand.

Now in presenting all your facts and reasons to me, you have assumed that such a God does not exist. You have taken for granted that you need no emplacement of any sort outside of yourself. You have assumed the autonomy of your own experience. Consequently you are unable — that is, unwilling — to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self-sufficiency. And you are bound to call that contradictory which does not fit into the reach of your intellectual powers. You remember what old Procrustes did. If his visitors were too long, he cut off a few slices at each end; if they were too short, he used the curtain stretcher on them. It is that sort of thing I feel that you have done with every fact of human experience. And I am asking you to be critical of this your own most basic assumption. Will you not go into the basement of your own experience to see what has been gathering there while you were busy here and there with the surface inspection of life? You may be greatly surprised at what you find there.”

-Van Til
What we believe about the nature of reality will to determine what we accept to be evidence. In every human being, there is worldview in which they coordinate their view of reality, truth and ethics. These things together form our basic outlook of life. It is impossible to break apart these corresponding and mutually dependent members. The nature of evidence will be adjusted to our outlook of life.

Secondly, the theistic question is a special question. It is special metaphysically because God is a non-natural object. He is a super-natural being, and has such the evidence for God’s existence will not be like anything else we argue about. Epistemologically, the argument will be presuppositional in nature. It will be about ultimate commitments that people have. The conflict between worldviews must be resolved differently than the factual claims within worldviews. Assume that we share a common worldview, then the question comes up, “Is there such thing as a baseball?” Within a common worldview we can set out to answer this question. The argument between worldviews is going to be different than arguments within a worldview. The argument between a Buddhist and a Christian will be different than an argument between two Christians or two Buddhists. Natural theologians assume that the believer and unbeliever will most things in common, but they just differ over small points. They claim that we can just resolve the small issue like we can resolve the existence of a baseball.

Thirdly, we just offer a transcendental argument for the existence of God. It deals with the preconditions of intelligible experience. To argue transcendentally is to argue for the impossibility of the contrary. If you do not hold to the Christian worldview, the opposite worldview is impossible. You cannot make sense of human experience apart from the Christian worldview. The proof of the Christian God is that without Him you cannot prove anything. The whole idea of proof presupposes the Christian outlook of life.

“The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. The question is as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are? Are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are?

The answer to this question cannot be finally settled by any direct discussion of “facts.” It must, in the last analysis be settled indirectly. The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the “facts” are not facts and the “laws” are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do “facts” and “laws” appear intelligible.

To admit one’s own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.”

-Van Til

“Now, in fact, I feel that the whole of history and civilization would be unintelligible to me if it were not for my belief in God. So true is this, that I propose to argue that unless God is back of everything, you cannot find meaning in anything. I cannot even argue for belief in Him, without already having taken Him for granted. And similarly I contend that you cannot argue against belief in Him unless you also first take Him for granted. Arguing about God’s existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time. Or to use another illustration, God is like the emplacement on which must stand the very guns that are supposed to shoot Him out of existence. However if, after hearing my story briefly, you still think it is all a matter of heredity and environment, I shall not disagree too violently. My whole point will be that there is perfect harmony between my belief as a child and my belief as a man, simply because God is Himself the environment by which my early life was directed and my later life made intelligible to myself.”

-Van Til

The atheist world is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience of science, logic, morality etc. We must do an internal critique of the atheist position to show how unintelligible everything becomes on the atheist presupposition. Then we invite the atheist to step into our worldview and see how everything is intelligible.

“It is not as though the Reformed apologist should not interest himself in the nature of the non-Christian’s method. On the contrary he should make a critical analysis of it. He should, as it were, join his “friend” in the use of it. But he should do so self-consciously with the purpose of showing that its most consistent application not merely leads away from Christian theism but in leading away from Christian theism leads to destruction of reason and science as well”

-Van Til

1. Science: Natural science assumes that the nature of reality is uniform and not random. It also assumes that there are types of events, so when all the conditions are the same in an experiment, you get the same outcomes consistently. Without this assumption, there would be no science. What right to atheists have to assume the uniformity of nature? As Christians we believe that God controls the universe in a regular fashion.
2. Laws of Logic: For naturalists, everything is particular and made of matter. However, the laws of logic are not particular and matter. They might argue that the laws of logic electro-chemical impulses in the brain. But then it wouldn’t make sense to say that they are normative, because the mind of man just happens to have electro-chemical reactions in the brain. The laws of logic also would not be universal. The laws of logic will vary different from person to person because our brains operate differently.
3. The atheist will often say you ought or ought not to do things. However, he is assuming that there are moral absolutes, but how can he affirm moral absolutes in a constantly changing universe?


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