Questioning Copan

The Gospel Coalition is running a series on apologetics, and today’s entry was by Paul Copan, entitled “Questioning Presuppositionalism”. What struck me, while reading his take on the subject, was how superficial and inaccurate it was. He introduces Van Til, and then says that Gordon Clark supposedly “generally followed” his methodology, along with Bahnsen and Frame, and then called it “variegated”. Well, given that he’s simply wrong concerning Clark, and that Frame consciously departed from Van Til as well, I’d supposed that’s an assumption guaranteed to result in a certain conclusion, wouldn’t you? It is not the case that Clark followed Van Til. Clark was not a student of Van Til’s, nor was a fellow professor. Clark taught at Wheaton, until 1944, roughly contemporary with the inauguration of the Controversy, at his ordination in the OPC, and taught at Butler consequently. Frame and Bahnsen, however, were students of Van Til at Westminster. Bahnsen, in many ways, was Van Til’s “prize pupil” – and arranged perhaps the definitive “reader” for Van Til’s published work.

Be that as it may, it’s even more useful to deal with the substance of Copan’s comments at this point. He begins with a story concerning Carl F. Henry, who said that we need more than probabilistic arguments of evidentialism. This merely echoes Van Til when he says God is not honored by being said to “probably” exist. In fact, it strikes to the heart of our theology. As Reformed believers, we profess that all men do, in fact, know that God exists. When we say this, we are not saying that they know “a god” exists – we are saying that they know God. I wrote a paper on that very subject[ref]Whipps, Joshua, Exposition of Romans 1:16-2:16 – The Knowledge of God, In Antithesis: A Reformed Apologetics Journal, Vol. 1, Num. 1[/ref] not all that long ago, and this doctrine is a mainstay of Reformed theology. Scripture teaches it, therefore we believe it, as would be expected by adherents of Sola Scriptura. Copan doesn’t seem to grasp the theological underpinnings of the method, in many ways – at least he doesn’t address it. As I’ve said many times before – this is simply Sola Scriptura in an apologetic context.

From there, we are taken through a very shallow view of presup’s foundations, without an eye to the subtleties of theology on which it is built. There is a casual mention of several elements, but the mentions seem to lack an accurate understanding, as we shall see later. We’ll take his comments as they come from here on in.

Presuppositionalism is common in Reformed circles. Cornelius Van Til, called the “fountainhead of presuppositionalism,” argued that one must begin with biblical revelation; otherwise, “logic” and “evidence” will become distorted to accommodate the suppression of truth in unrighteousness. Others like Gordon Clark, Greg Bahnsen, and John Frame have generally followed Van Til’s methodology—although in variegated fashion (which makes a brief assessment of presuppositionalism difficult). For example, Frame asks: “Are we not still forced to say, ‘God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion), and isn’t that argument circular?’” He answers, “Yes, in a way.”

Elsewhere he says, “If Scripture is the ultimate justification for all human knowledge, how should we justify our belief in Scripture itself? By Scripture, of course!”

Yes, it is common in Reformed circles. Why is it common in Reformed circles? Because it is simply the consistent conclusion of Reformed theology. To paraphrase Van Til, Reformed theology requires a Reformed apologetic. I also find it interesting that he doesn’t quote Frame’s further explanation of what is meant by “circular”, or delineate between a “vicious” and “broad” circularity, as he would have to do, in order to adequately make the charge he does first. He also fails to note any of Van Til’s extensive argumentation concerning this very question – in his specific, full-length books on epistemology, or in his broader apologetic work. It’s rather disappointing, if the truth be told. I expected something significantly more robust. Unfortunately, he does much the same thing that Craig does, and the vast majority of Van Til’s critics, and simply sweeps the question of epistemology under the rug by a dismissal of “begging the question”. What is not quite so evident, but is nonetheless present, is Copan’s question-begging in return. If presupposing Scripture, as a unit, as a system, is seen to be “begging the question” – is not assuming the autonomy of man in starting with himself to reason equally question-begging? I find it quite puzzling that an experienced philosopher such as Dr. Copan would pass over such a fundamental issue at this point. But I’m running ahead of myself a bit, so I’ll return to his statements.

Frame argues that we all have presuppositions, and if we assume that reason can be used to assess worldviews, then this one is depending upon rationalism, which itself begs the question (or is circular). Since there is no presupposition-free zone, one can legitimately “presuppose” the Christian faith to make sense of reality and engage with alternative worldviews.

Copan’s discussion, strangely, doesn’t get into why we say this. He doesn’t discuss the nature of what is presupposed by the non-Christian, and by himself, in arguing with the non-Christian on his own terms. What is sorely lacking in these responses is an in-depth look at the questions and objections posed by the method to the theological and philosophical underpinnings of their evidentialism/classicalism. It is simply passed over by a retreat to “begging the question” or “circular reasoning” – and fails to address the question-begging and circularity present in their own view – even when it is mentioned, as we will see shortly.

As I see it, presuppositionalism has the following strengths: its emphasis on (a) the noetic influence of sin (sin’s effect on the mind); (b) the non-neutrality of worldviews (they are heart-commitments); and (c) the need for the Spirit for faith to take root in one’s heart. I would also disagree with presuppositionalism at certain points.

While I’m sure Dr. Copan is being complimentary here, I don’t think he is aiming at the right place. The foundation, for Van Til, is only accurately represented if it is viewed as a “totality” – as a unit. Taking certain elements of the method and pulling them out for scrutiny directly denies what the method itself says should be done, and can be done – so how can a denial of what the method says be a “strength” of that method? All of the above are part of Reformed theology, sure – but they are all only part, and inseparable from the whole.

First, it engages in question-begging—assuming what one wants to prove. It begins with the assumption that God exists, and then concludes that God exists. Such reasoning would get you an “F” in any logic class worthy of the name! [Note: For a broader critique of Frame's starting points, see Harold A. Netland, "Apologetics, Worldviews, and the Problem of Neutral Criteria," Trinity Journal 12/1 (Spring 1991): 39-58.]

As we have repeatedly explained, there is a crucial difference between “broad” and “vicious” circularity. Van Til expresses this at length throughout his works. There is no mention of the difference herein, nor is there any sign that he has dealt with the issue in any sense. Until this is done, it is “question begging” to say that what we explicitly deny is in fact the case. This is one of the points on which the debate turns. Defining it away does not answer the question, nor does saying that it would get you an “F”. If Dr. Copan defined Van Til’s position as such, I’d give him an “F”. Simple retortion, and just as sound, argumentatively. It is by no means clear that what is being spoken of is simple question-begging, especially given the paucity of context in view. One might only refer to our FAQ section on the topic, or to Butler, Pratt, Bahnsen, or even Frame himself for a refutation that this is what is in view. If Dr. Copan takes simple question-begging to be our position, he is mistaken. In fact, he should know better, as there is no lack of material to be found on the topic.

While we begin our worldview examination from somewhere, universal logical laws like the law of non-contradiction or excluded middle are inescapable for assessing and critiquing worldviews. In his debate with Henry, Hackett said that without some set of “neutral criteria” that are logically prior to consent or commitment to a particular worldview, “there is no way to show that one worldview perspective is more plausible than another” since both parties are “starting from totally different assumptions.” Indeed, the statements of Scripture themselves presuppose the validity of logical laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle; they also appeal to criteria beyond Scripture—the court of appeals of historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-19)—things that were not done in a corner (Acts 26:26).

Here is where the rubber meets the road. We are told that these laws are “universal”. How does one know that these logical laws are “universal”? Is it not begging the question in favor of your own position to say that they are universal, on your own authority? One can try to escape to coherentism, foundationalism, or any numbers of “isms” to attempt to demonstrate it externally, but to do so, you are still assuming that which you set out to prove, those laws of logic, are you not? Even if, as it seems, the appeal is to pragmatism – it is “inescapable” – does the necessity of using a thing justify knowledge of the thing to begin with? We aren’t told why, if this is so. I’m aware that this is a short, introductory critique, but this is not a short, introductory subject he is addressing with such brevity. Why is it the case that “universal logical laws” are “inescapable for assessing and critiquing worldviews”? We aren’t told. This seems to be an unargued assertion. It also seems to be begging the question in his favor, does it not? There is the further unargued assertion that Scripture presupposes these logical laws. How does Dr. Copan know this? We are not told, and no argument is offered in support of this statement. It is further asserted that there are “criteria beyond Scripture”. Verses are cited, but not exegeted. Hardly the sort of citation an adherent of Sola Scriptura is wont to support. Further, I find it ironic that Scripture is being cited to support the assertion of appeals “beyond Scripture”. Is Dr. Copan under the impression 1) That Scripture is beyond Scripture or 2) That the period of enscripturation is identical to the period antecedent to the period of enscripturation? 1) is given as a humorous statement, to point out that this seems to be circular, superficially. You need Scripture to tell you what is supposedly “beyond Scripture”, it seems ;) 2) however, is more pointed. Is it Dr. Copan’s intention to undermine the argument from apostolic authority? This seems to be an unintended consequence of his position. If Scripture needs “outside help” to show itself to be true, this militates against the confessional position of the people he is arguing against, for one – cf. LBCF/WCF I. Is this not begging the question in favor of his own position? For another, what does he then do with the unique ministry of the apostles as the writers of that Scripture? In this way is it shown that the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura is consistently monergistic, just as its soteriology is monergistic. This is the key that many people seem to miss. All of Reformed theology is monergistic – not just its soteriology.

Second, Christians share common ground with unbelievers, who are likewise made in God’s image, which is not erased by the fall. Someone has said, “A person who believes in total depravity can’t be all that bad!” Yet in some Reformed circles, the doctrine of total depravity seems to leave no trace of the imago Dei. The Scriptures affirm otherwise (Gen. 9:6), and God can and does speak to unbelievers through reason, beauty, moral failure, and the existence of evil. As a cloud of apologetical witnesses can testify, God has used philosophical arguments for his existence, scientific supports for the universe’s beginning (Big Bang) and its fine-tuning, and historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus to assist people in embracing Christ—just as God uses preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16) or the loving character of a Christian community (John 13:35). These are all part of the holistic witness to the reality of God and the gospel, all of which the Spirit of God can use to lead unbelievers to embracing the Christ.

I’ll confess. This is the one that really got my goat. If Dr. Copan had read Van Til, I don’t think it would be remotely possible to write this about presuppositionalism. It would be an absurdity to him. As it stands, I’m forced to believe that he has no idea what van Til said about the imago Dei, at very least. It is unmistakeably clear – in Van Til, and in Bahnsen, that the image of God is the point of contact – is the common ground – between believers and unbelievers. In fact, how he managed to miss this in Frame also puzzles me. Van Til takes directly from Calvin’s first chapter of the Institutes, and explicitly states that the image of God is the point of contact. “It is assured of a point of contact in the fact that every man is made in the image of God and has impressed upon him the law of God. In that fact alone he may rest secure with respect to the point of contact problem. For that fact makes men always accessible to God. That fact assures us that every man, to be a man at all, must already be in contact with the truth. He is so much in contact with the truth that much of his energy is spent in the vain attempt to hide this fact from himself. … Only by thus finding the point of contact in man’s sense of deity that lies underneath his own conception of self-consciousness as ultimate can we both be true to Scripture and effective in reasoning with the natural man.”[ref]CVT, Defense of the Faith (4th Ed.), 117[/ref] In the response to the section to follow, the puzzling insistence by other schools for putting words in our mouth will be addressed further. The typical Arminian misrepresentation of Total Depravity is also unfortunate, although not unexpected. Theology matters – and theology determines apologetic methodology, as James White is wont to say.

Third, some (not all) presuppostionalists seem inconsistent about natural theology. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga describes the attitude of Reformed theologians toward theistic arguments as ranging from “indifference, through suspicion and hostility, to outright accusations of blasphemy.”

Typically, these presuppositionalists (e.g., Bahnsen) avoid traditional cosmological (causal), teleological (design), and moral arguments, but they enthusiastically endorse the transcendental argument for God (TAG)—the argument to show that God as the inevitable ground for all rational thought. This strikes me as a distinction without a difference: why couldn’t God use TAG just as he uses other natural theological arguments? Furthermore, why the Christian God and not the God of the Qur’an as the ground for rational thought?

Let’s be frank for a minute. Is it natural theology that we have a problem with, or is it the use (or misuse) of it that we have a problem with? Van Til, again, has a response, would Dr. Copan only read it. Again, it is theological in nature, and only a few pages prior to the last. “In paradise Adam knew that as a creature of God it was natural and proper that he should keep the covenant that God had made with him. In this way it appears that man’s proper self-consciousness depended, even in paradise, upon his being in contact with both supernatural and natural revelation. God’s natural revelation was within man as well as about him. Man’s very constitution as a rational and moral being is itself revelational of man as the ethically responsible reactor to revelation. … Mad had originally not merely a capacity for receiving the truth; he was in actual possession of the truth. The world of truth was not found in some realm far distant from him; it was right before him. That which spoke to his senses no less than that which spoke to his intellect was the voice of God. Even when he closed his eyes upon the external world, his internal sense would manifest God to him in his own constitution. The matter of his experience was in no sense in need of a mere form with which he might organize the raw material. On the contrary, the matter of his experience was lit up through and through. Yet it was lit up for him by the voluntary activity of God whose counsel made things to be what they are. Man could not be aware of himself without being aware of the objects about him and without also being aware of his responsibility to manage himself and all things for the glory of God.”[ref]CVT, Defense of the Faith (4th Ed.), 114[/ref]

While he tries to make this a “softer blow” – it doesn’t particularly work. In historic Reformed theology, it is the case that we affirm that all men know God. Our confessions affirm it, and our systematics surely do so as well. Since all men know God, this goes hand in hand with knowing His creation as such – His creation. This is the basis for our contention that probabilistic argumentation is wrong, and yes, blasphemous. If this offends someone, well, the truth sometimes offends. I’ve said it before. God is not honored by saying He *probably* exists when he Himself tells us in Scripture that all men know He exists, and who and what He is. It’s not that we are arguing that God is the *inevitable* grounds for rational thought – we’re saying that rational thought apart from those grounds is *impossible*. It’s not an inductive argument, nor is it a deductive argument. It’s an “argument by presupposition”, or a transcendental argument – which deals with the preconditions of intelligibility. We’re saying *nothing makes sense* unless you start with God – and further, that *everyone does*, because they all know God, even though they attempt to suppress it, even to themselves. Yet, that very knowledge is the point of contact we are striving to use. As both Van Til and Bahnsen said, if Dr. Copan would read further in their published work, there is a place for the traditional arguments – but not formulated probabilistically. The place for those arguments is within the greater transcendental argument, which pits entire worldviews one against the other, as systems. Hinc illae lacrimae! That is the issue, not the putative problems he (and Plantinga) think we have with the traditional arguments. Lastly, you can’t use Islam because Islam cannot provide the preconditions for intelligibility, nor can Allah be said to be known by every man, among other problems. Another question we’ve answered here, at length, and he is welcome to correspond with us further if he’d like to see the answer in full.

Fourth, it is important to distinguish between the confident ground of our knowledge of God and the highly probable public case for the Christian faith. The witness of the Spirit—not a host of intellectual arguments—is what ultimately gives us confident knowledge that we belong to God (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:6-7; 1 Jn. 2:20), yet this does not exclude the Spirit’s using highly probable or plausible public evidences for God’s existence or for the resurrection of Jesus. Knowledge in one area does not exclude knowledge in another. Having warrant for belief is not the same as showing my belief is warranted.

This, my friends, is where the question is begged most viciously. Certainty is found only in the revelation of God. Assuming that there is a “lesser” persuasion is the entire point of our dispute, and here it is, merely asserted, yet again. It is NOT important “to distinguish between the confident ground of our knowledge of God and the highly probable case for the Christian faith.” There, I’ve made the same argument Dr. Copan made for you, just reversed. Do you feel convinced? Stating the same thing different ways, as he does to follow, is still not an argument. It’s just an assertion. He is correct that the witness of the Spirit is what gives us “confident knowledge” – Reformed believers call this “certainty” – but that’s not a popular term in most philosophical circles. We are, however, told in Scripture that we may know for certain. We know for certain that what God tells us is true – because He is the only possible grounds for certainty *at all*. Luke tells us that we may know for certain, in Luke 1:4 – using ἀσφάλεια – rendered as “the exact truth”. Peter, in Acts 2:36, says that all Israel knew “for certain” – same word – that Jesus was both Lord and Christ. Christ is the truth. His word is truth. Is it uncertain, or is it “sure” – ἀσφαλής – the Word of hope that God, who cannot lie, gave us, as it says in Hebrews 6:19? It does not do to offer a probable hope, or a probable god, or a probable history, or a probable case for any of the above. It does not even do to offer a highly probable case for any of the above. What isn’t mentioned, further, is how we are supposed to determine these so-called probabilities. Whose rules do we use, and what goes into formulating them? I’m sure Dr. Copan goes into this elsewhere, but he sure doesn’t address them here. Even if he did, I’d have issues with the inherent subjectivity of the entire process. I would submit to you that while offering a critique on each one of these points, he has given you a much shallower theological position, and holds to a much shallower theological position than the one we self-consciously and openly claim to be arguing from.

We, unlike the traditional apologist, lay our cards on the table and call the unbeliever’s bluff. In turn, I’d like to call Dr. Copan’s bluff. If you’re going to make critiques, kindly ensure that you accurately depict the position you are critiquing – and don’t engage in the same practices that you claim your opponents are engaging in while doing so. It’s not the work of a professional philosopher, or worthy of the head of a major philosophical society. It’s the work of someone with “an axe to grind”, as Van Til was fond of saying. If this response is considered overly harsh, please understand that I consider Dr. Copan’s attempted critique to be overly harsh; primarily because it is overly simplistic, theologically shallow, and generally inaccurate. It is neither gracious nor good scholarship to so badly misrepresent a position on a major theological resource such as TGC. Please consider this response to be a rebuke, and an encouragement to revisit the published work of the men that are cited. I won’t be the only person to respond to this article. I’m sure Westminster will have a response forthcoming, given the contributions from multiple faculty members to TGC.

7 thoughts on “Questioning Copan

  1. Adam lived breathed and communicated in the cool of the day in a world of Natural Theology. Yet, his pre-suppositions led him to reject the Natural Theology that came from walking in the cool of the day with God. Pre-suppositions are the baggage we all bring and it seems to me they are foundational in our relationships with people. Secondly, if we don’t conciously ask God to help us see people as He sees them we cannot have any ground to stand on with non-believers, but if we pre-suppose for them the truth that God created them in His image and for His purposes than I have ground to stand on and communicate the truth of God and the Bible.

  2. Hi,
    You said: “Lastly, you can’t use Islam because Islam cannot provide the preconditions for intelligibility, nor can Allah be said to be known by every man, among other problems. Another question we’ve answered here, at length, and he is welcome to correspond with us further if he’d like to see the answer in full.”

    Is there a specific link/article you can provide for previous answers to the question?

  3. Excellent response. Copan had no business writing on presuppositionalism, and it shows in what he put together in his woeful critique. As I read through the various responses to Copan that have popped up on the internet, I am increasingly alarmed by how pitiful Copan’s critique actually is. I mean, goodness, he even used the typical atheistic argument I hear over and over: Why not presuppose Allah? As if that were something presuppositionalist had never considered previously.

    I pray he handles topics on which he writes more carefully in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


× four = 8