The Scripturalist Ad Hominem Reply
The task of Christian Apologetics is to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). This requires you to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). It is to provide a rational justification for the faith and refute arguments made against the Christian worldview, which is defined entirely and exclusively by the Bible. Apologetics then is nothing more than the intellectual defense of the of the truth of propositional revelation. Unfortunately, there is much confusion in today's churches regarding the topic of Christian apologetics. Some Christians disparage and refrain from the task of apologetics because they view it as argumentative and confrontational. Often they cite their own personal experience or shortcomings as the basis for their position. We hear statements like, “we should be trying to win people not trying to win arguments.” Rather than encouraging apologetics, they attack it out of false piety.
Yet many others who actually do engage in apologetics seem to misunderstand its purpose. The purpose of apologetics is not to try to prove to the unbeliever what he already knows; that is, God exists. Romans chapter one tells us that the unbeliever knows God. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them,” (Romans 1:19) but that “by their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). It should be clear from the plain reading of the text that the unbeliever already knows that God is real. We, therefore, should not spend any of our time trying to prove to the unbelievers what they already know.
It would seem, however, that many Christian apologists are predominantly concerned with trying to prove to the unbeliever that God exists. What is even more surprising is that many Van Tilian Presuppositionalists are under the mistaken impression that they can prove the existence of God by using the transcendental argument. We often hear these presuppositionalist repeat Greg Bahnsen and claim, “we can prove God by the impossibility of the contrary.” The Scripturalist has long since corrected this misunderstanding among the proponents of the Van Tilian presuppositional method. In order to be a presuppositionalist who is bent on trying to prove that God exists one would have to be thoroughly confused. Dr. Gary Crampton rightly points out, “is it not obvious that, by definition, a presupposition is not provable? And if one is a presuppositionalist, he cannot logically believe in the legitimate use of theistic proofs for the existence of God.”[i] Presuppositions are assumptions and one cannot prove what they must first assume. Crampton goes on to write, “The absolutely certain proof of the transcendental argument is imaginary. The Van Tilian position is a confused form of evidentialism; it is certainly not presuppositionalism.”[ii]
But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The transcendental argument can still be very useful in apologetics. Crampton continues, “This is not to say that a form of the transcendental argument cannot be used in an ad hominem fashion, that is, a reductio ad absurdum. Reducing an opponent's arguments to the level of absurdity, thereby showing him the vacuous nature of his own worldview, is an excellent apologetical tool. All of Gordon Clark’s books are examples of such argumentation.”[iii]
The Scripturalist argues that the transcendental argument cannot be used to prove the existence of God but that it can be used in an ad hominem response. However, before we proceed any further, we must correct a very common misunderstanding that all ad hominem replies are fallacious. Here we must caution the would-be philosopher to avoid making this mistake. Gordon Clark wrote:
ad hominem - Latin meaning "to the man." A form of argument that accepts a proposition espoused by another for the purpose of deducing from it contradictory propositions or propositions that would be rejected by the other person. AD HOMINEM SHOULD BE DISTINGUISHED FROM THE INFORMAL FALLACY OF ABUSIVE AD HOMINEM. (Emphasis Clark’s)[iv]
Clark emphatically points out that an ad hominem should be distinguished from an abusive ad hominem fallacy. An abusive ad hominem fallacy is made when one attacks the other person’s character or some other personal trait that is irrelevant to the argument. However, a valid ad hominem reply can be made, if instead of attacking the person’s character, we attack their presuppositions. This is what we have in mind when we use the transcendental argument in an ad hominem fashion. An ad hominem reply of this nature is valid because the unbeliever's presuppositions are relevant to the discussion, whereas their character may not be relevant to the discussion. Presuppositions are the basis on which arguments are made. If the basic presuppositions are false then the arguments from which they are derived and from which they proceed are altogether worthless. This type of ad hominem reply is not irrelevant and therefore it is not fallacious.
The Clarkian use of the transcendental argument in an ad hominem fashion also allows the Christian to fulfill the apologetic method prescribed in Proverbs 26:4-5.
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
"Answer not a fool according to his folly." That is, do not accept his false presuppositions as your own, "lest you be like him yourself."
"Answer a fool according to his folly." That is, do accept his false presuppositions for the sake of argument, so that you may deduce from them contradictory proposition or reduce them to absurdity, "lest he be wise in his own eyes."
Many Christian apologists have failed to regard this passage in their apologetic method and consequently, they have become like the fool. Instead of accepting the folly of the fool as our own we should accept it only for the sake of argument. For example, we can make an argument “toward the man” (the empiricist) and accept his false assumption of empiricism as true for the sake of argument. That is you answer him according to his folly of empiricism, so that you may reduce it to absurdity.
While working at the largest firehouse in the city of El Paso a number of years ago, I found myself engaging fellow firefighters about my faith. To my surprise, most of the firefighters were very open about discussing what they believed. At times I found an ally or two but most of the time I found myself under a barrage of ridicule from a handful of outspoken atheists. It was a great experience, however, because God granted me favor with these individuals and I had the opportunity to share the gospel with them. I came to appreciate these late night firehouse chats. At the time there was one particular officer who was the most vocal and vulgar in his disagreement with Christianity. As soon as he got on his soapbox there was a loud barrage of shouting, cursing, and ranting. Usually, this was in the company of other spectators (fellow firefighters) but when others weren’t around it was much easier to engage him in some productive discussion.
One evening at the fire station I asked him why he didn’t believe in God to which he confidently replied, “there is no empirical evidence for the existence of God.” Fortunately, by this time I had already been introduced to Scripturalist apologetics and I was able to offer an ad hominem reply. I didn’t accept his standard of empiricism as my own standard; rather, I accepted it for the sake of argument and reduced it to absurdity. I replied that if empiricism is true then he could not know that it is true. Empiricism holds that all knowledge is gained via the senses yet he had just made a knowledge claim that could not be known by the sense. It is, therefore, contradictory and self-refuting. I challenged him to establish the standard of empiricism on its own terms before he makes any demands that I establish God’s existence by the false standard of empiricism. I further pointed out that the empiricist puts forth a universal claim that all knowledge is gained via the senses yet the empiricist cannot establish any universal claim through sense perception. This is because his sense perceptions are limited in the past and non-existent in the future with the result that his claim rests on an impossible induction, which cannot be completed. Therefore, the empiricist commits the fallacy of induction in his attempt to establish a universal claim from a limited set of particular instances. Furthermore, the empiricist cannot account for the laws of Logic via sense perception yet their arguments require the use of the laws of logic. One reason for this is that the laws of logic are universal and as we just pointed out the empiricist cannot establish universals on empiricism. This officer had advanced an unargued philosophical presupposition of empiricism and I accepted it for the sake of argument in order to reduce it to absurdity and show it to be self-contradictory. By casting down his lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God I was then able to share the gospel.
As I told him about his need for Christ I switched from apologetics to evangelism, however, the task of apologetics wasn’t over. I warned him of the judgment to come and that he would have to stand before a Holy and Righteous God when he died. He responded by telling me that when we die nothing happens and that we don’t have a soul. He then asked me if I had ever seen the TV series Cosmos. He stated something to the effect that there was no heaven or hell and all that ever existed was the Cosmos. At that point, I realized that he had presupposed a materialistic worldview.
Materialism is the philosophical view that nothing exists apart from the physical or material universe. This view is quite popular among unbelievers because it excludes the supernatural and the spiritual. All that exists is matter and energy in motion. The officer had clearly been influenced by Carl Sagan’s opening line in the 1980 hit television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in which Sagan famously stated, “The Cosmos [matter and energy] is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” This statement and the original video clip of Sagan standing on the beach was repeated in the 2014 sequel series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey which featured astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Sagan and Tyson, along with many others, appear to share this view of materialism. The underlying presupposition of materialism was the basis on which the officer put forth the claim that there was no heaven or hell, he had no soul, there was no afterlife, and there was no God. During a Q&A session featuring Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson, published on Youtube on Nov. 13, 2011, Tyson stated the following, “I would request, that my body in death be buried not cremated so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth so the flora and fauna can dine upon it just as I have dined upon flora and fauna throughout my life.”[v] This once again presupposes a materialistic worldview.
I asked the officer if he believed there was anything beyond the material to which he replied that he did not. Rather than accepting his position of materialism as my own presupposition, I accepted it for the sake of argument in order to reduce it to absurdity. I replied that if materialism is true the materialist cannot make his arguments in favor of his materialism intelligible. The problem is that the materialist cannot account for immaterial laws in a materialistic worldview. Some may wish to disregard the existence of immaterial moral laws, but the case against materialism becomes indisputable when one considers the laws of logic. This is because it is impossible to argue for a materialistic worldview without first presupposing the immaterial laws of logic. The arguments for materialism would not be intelligible without these immaterial laws and this is not difficult to demonstrate. I pointed out that when Carl Sagan said, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” he did not intend for his audience to understand that to mean “The Cosmos is not all that is or ever was or ever will be,” for that would contradict his claim. He is therefore already committed to the immaterial law of contradiction. Furthermore, I pointed out that every word in his claim has a specific meaning. The word “Cosmos” does not mean baseball and the phrase “all that is” does not mean none there was. One may notice that there are thirteen words in Sagan’s claim, and if the law of contradiction is rejected then we can say that his words carry the meaning of these thirteen words, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1 KJV). Of course, Sagan and Tyson would both reject this understanding of what Sagan said because that is not what he was trying to communicate and it contradicts their views.
The problem facing the Materialist should, therefore, be obvious. These men are inescapably committed to the immaterial law of contradiction. However, in their worldview, the laws of logic are nowhere to be found. Not only are the immaterial laws not accounted for in the materialistic worldview, but they are necessarily excluded. The fact that such arguments are intelligible and can be understood demonstrates that they are false and irrational.
The Van Tilian presuppositionalist is already engaged in this tactic to some extent. What the Clarkian refers to as an ad hominem reply the Van Tilian refers to as an “internal critique.” It would appear then that both the Van Tilian Presuppositionalist and the Clarkian Scripturalist are using the transcendental argument in the same way but we disagree on what it accomplishes. To give an example of a Van Tilian Presuppositionalist giving an ad hominem reply we should look no further than Greg Bahnsen. Dr. Bahnsen gave a brilliant ad hominem reply against naturalism. He stated the following:
Let me talk about freedom in our thinking. If naturalism is true, that is that all that exist is the natural order and there isn't anything that goes beyond man's experience in time, if naturalism is true then the naturalist has no reason to believe his naturalism. You write that down and I'll explain why it is true. If naturalism is true the naturalist has no reason to believe it. He has no reason to believe it. Because you see naturalism says all of our thinking is just electrical chemical responses. All of our thinking is subject to the laws of chemistry and physics, which is to say all of our thinking is determined by the factors in the physical world or in the physical brain in the environment around us. All of our thinking is in principle predictable then because it's just following the laws of nature. Usually more sophisticatedly put, the laws of physics and biology and chemistry and so forth. But the point is that human thinking is just a species of the physical world and its operation. Human thinking is just, it’s on the same order but not on the same level of sophistication as weeds growing. And so if naturalism is true then the person who's propounding it is propounding it why, because his or her brain is required them by the laws of physics, and chemistry and biology to say this sort of thing. It’s not as though they have the freedom and self-awareness to think about different theories evaluate evidence and make a choice as to which is right or wrong. They just have to say whatever they have to say and that's why the irony is that a naturalist would promote naturalism and try to tell people it’s true, you should believe that and not supernaturalism. The answer is that if naturalism is true so that your brain is just working on the laws of physics then you have no reason to believe naturalism is true, it’s just the laws of physics requiring you to say that, which is just to say that if naturalism is true then there is no reason to say that naturalism is true; you’re just forced to say that just like I’m forced by the laws of physics to say the opposite. Unbelievers cannot even account for why we argue with each other then, can they? On their assumption there is no argument because there is no freedom to choose the truth over against error, there are just the laws of physics governing my brain so say and do whatever it does.[vi]
Bahnsen does not accept the position of naturalism as his own presupposition but rather he accepted it for the purpose of reducing it to absurdity. He aptly answers the fool according to his folly. This cannot prove Christian theism simply on the grounds that he showed the impossibility of the contrary, which in this case is naturalism. However that is not our task in apologetics. It is simply to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3), to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Bahnsen gave an outstanding argument that one can use in an ad hominem fashion.
[i] Crampton, Gary W. "Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis." Trinity Foundation. June & july 2000. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=128.
[ii] Crampton, Gary W. "Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis." Trinity Foundation. June & july 2000. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=128.
[iii] Crampton, Gary W. "Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis." Trinity Foundation. June & july 2000. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=128.
[iv] Clark, Gordon H. Logic. Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2004.
[v] Thiscantbeitagain. "Neil deGrasse Tyson stops a religious troll (w/captions)." YouTube. September 28, 2010. Accessed March 27, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afGkv0IT4dU.
[vi] "Greg Bahnsen debunks atheist Dogma (Presuppositional Apologetics)." YouTube. August 08, 2013. Accessed March 27, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRq6qKp78W8&t=13s.