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PRESUPPOSITIONALISM: PARTIALLY UNORTHODOX?

Introduction

            In this blog post I have done my best to keep my own opinions to a minimum, but, rather, to present the opinions of theologians who are said to be (by Reformed people the world around) some of the greatest theologians and authorities for Reformed Theology. There is much talk of theological orthodoxy, but those who talk about it the most are often the same who take the least amount of time to define it. The general notion of orthodoxy could be summarized as follows: A thinker is orthodox when they adhere to an official list of authoritative doctrines, and unorthodox when they deny do not adhere to that official list. We might also talk about “partial orthodoxy”, which is what happens when someone could be said to adhere to most, or the majority, of the doctrines in the list, and denies a minority of the doctrines in that authoritative list. Thus we can say that a person is, for the most part, orthodox, but unorthodox in relation to some one (or a few) doctrine (s). Is there any authoritative list of doctrines for Protestants? Some might immediately respond that there can be no authoritative list of doctrines, as such a list would be an extra-biblical creation of man, and, thus, goes against the Protestant principles (Of course, talk of “protestant principles” certainly sounds like an authoritative list of doctrines…). I do not want to get into any debates about which, if any, particular list should be considered authoritative for Protestantism (i.e., the Constantinople-Nicean Creed, TULIP, the SOLAS, the “fundamentals”, or the many different confessions that have been created over time). As I am interested primarily with the orthodoxy of Presuppositionalism (and, primarily, it’s fundamental claim that fallen, unregenerate, humans are incapable of coming to knowledge of the True God of the Bible via their unaided observations of the Universe; and, thus, that there is no common ground between the regenerate and the unregenerate), it seems proper to hold it up against those doctrines that are held to be the fundamental doctrines of the Calvinist churches of the Reform. To do so, we will consider the opinions of three important Reformed Theologians: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and J. Gresham Machen. We will then look at the Westminster Confession, followed by a brief consideration of Romans 1:19-20. We will not draw any conclusions, but will let the reader arrive at their own conclusions. The question is: Is Presuppositionalism faithful (and thus orthodox) to traditional Reformed teaching concerning whether or not unregenerate human-beings are able, without the aid of divine revelation or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to come to some knowledge of the one true God?


John Calvin

            John Calvin states, concerning human knowledge of God, first of all, that “By knowledge of God, I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to his glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning him.”[1] The question that we must now ask is, Can man attain to knowledge of God? To this Calvin’s answer is a resounding “Yes!”  Not only can the regenerated man attain to knowledge of God, but the unregenerate man can also attain some knowledge of God.[2] Indeed, as is well known and attested, Calvin claims that all men, regenerate or unregenerate, have within them the sensus divinitatus (the sense of deity). He states, for example, “That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.”[3]

Finally, Calvin states that God reveals himself to man in nature, in three ways: (1) through creation itself, (2) through man’s nature & man’s history, and (3) through Gods providential control of the creation and man. Take, for example, this statement, “He [God] has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity [“the perfection of blessedness [felicity] consists in the knowledge of God”], not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken [the sensus divinitatus], but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraved in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.”[4] Here Calvin states that God has not only given, to all men (regenerate and unregenerate) the sensus divinitatus, but, on top of that, He also gives to all men, in nature (in all the things He has created), the proof of his existence and glory. This knowledge of God, attained through the contemplation of creation, is available to all men, everywhere, regenerate or not.

Concerning the notion of Common Ground between the regenerate and the unregenerate, let us look at the very words of John Calvin, who, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, states that the fact that humankind (regenerate and unregenerate) can know God through his creation just is common ground between the regenerate and the non-regenerate. Calvin explicitly states, “I just wanted to note here that there is a way to seek God that is common to pagans and to believers of the church, by following in his footsteps, as they are outlined in the heavens and on earth, as paintings of his image.”[5] So, Presuppositionalism, by claiming that there is NO common ground between believers and unbelievers, and by claiming that unbelievers are unable to come to some knowledge of the true God through their observations of nature, explicitly rejects a biblical teaching that John Calvin himself explicitly held to be true. For more on John Calvin's approach to Natural Theology follow this link.


Francis Turretin

            Turning to one who is, without a doubt, one of the greatest reformed theologians, Francis Turretin, we discover that Presuppositionalism should be considered as Unorthodox by all Reformed thinkers. Why is this? Turretin, in the first couple pages of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, writes (in opposition to the heresies of the Socinians, who denied that the unregenerate people could acquire some knowledge of God from nature with the unaided reason and “who deny the existence of any such natural theology or knowledge of God.”[6]) that “The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).”[7] It seems, then, that in so much as Presuppositionalism denies that the unregenerate can actually know something of the true God from their observations of nature, it is heretical. Indeed, Turretin explicitly refutes, in the name of orthodoxy, Van Til’s claim that prior to the Fall human’s could know something of the true God from their unaided observations of the universe, but that after the Fall they could not.[8] Turretin explicitly states that natural theology does not concern knowledge of God that man had prior to the fall, “Nor does it concern this as it was in Adam before the fall”.[9] “rather”, Turretin goes on, “it concerns this as it remained after the fall.”[10] Therefore, for Turretin, Natural Theology is knowledge of God that can be obtained by fallen humans, even in their fallen, unregenerate, state. For more on Francis Turretin's view of Natural Theology see this link.


J. Gresham Machen

            What about the very school where Van Til (the undisputed founder of Presuppositionalism) taught for almost his entire teaching career? We find that the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, in Pennsylvania, J. Gresham Machen, disagreed entirely with Van Til on the possibility of demonstrating the existence of God. In his well-known book, The Christian Faith in the Modern World, Machen explicitly states that the first place where God reveals himself to man in the universe that He created.[11] He explains that God’s self-testimony in the universe that He created comes to different people in different ways, by: 1) the natural sciences and the complexity and order that they discover in the natural world, (2) philosophy and ontological arguments which begin with the very existence of the universe, and (3) the existential experience of transcendence.[12] Machen, indeed, thinks that the many philosophical arguments that demonstrate the existence of God provide good evidence, and that the Christian man, whether he has a detailed knowledge of them or not, should never devalue or regard them as being of no importance in the debate concerning the existence of God.[13] We could continue but the interested reader can go read the rest for themselves.


The Westminster Confession

            We will finish by noting one last source of authority for Reformed theology: The Westminster Confession. The very first line of the very first article of the very first chapter states, “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.” Without a doubt the “men” who are “unexcusable” are the unregenerate who, confronted with the knowledge of “the goodness, wisdom and power of God” which is “manifest” through “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence”, reject this knowledge. How, we might ask, could men be held unexcusable if this knowledge was not actually attainable by them? This brings us back to what Turretin said above. Though confessions are easily interpretable in different ways, it certainly seems that Presuppositionalism is forced to twist and distort the evident meaning of this line in order to lay (doubtful) claim to orthodoxy…


Romans 1:18-21

            Cornelius Van Til, the father of Presuppositionalism, says, concerning Romans 1:19-20, “Accordingly, it must now be added, as Calvin points out so fully on the basis of Paul’s words, that God is displayed before men in the works of his hands. This means that God, not some sort of God or some higher principle, but God, the true God, is displayed before men. That is the fact of the matter, whether men recognize it or not. Paul does mention the power of God in particular as the attribute that comes most prominently to the foreground, but he also says that men have the divinity (Theiotes) displayed before them. This does not mean that God is as fully displayed in nature as he is in the gospel of Christ…All too often it has been argued that on the basis of nature or by natural theology man should be able to establish the existence of a God, while it is only by Christ and through grace that we can know anything more fully about the nature of this God. Now it is true that we have the fullest revelation of the nature of God in Christ. On the other hand, it is also true that when man was created in paradise [by paradise Van Til means the Garden of Eden], he knew not merely of the existence of God, but he knew the nature of God as far as it had been revealed to him. It is for the loss of this actual knowledge of the nature of God that man, when he became a sinner, must be held responsible. If this is not done, men will be looked upon merely as unfortunates who have not had the good fortune of having had the right information about God.”[14] For Van Til, the rejection of the knowledge of God to which Romans 1:18-21 refers, for which men are held responsible, happened at the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Is this the traditional interpretation of Romans 1:18-21?

            Note, first of all, that for John Calvin these verses apply to all mankind, and are true of all men (regenerate and unregenerate) of all time.[15] John Calvin says, for example, “When he says that God made it [His own existence, power and eternal nature] manifest to them: the meaning is, that mankind was created to this end, that he be the contemplator of this excellent work, the world: that his eyes were given to him in order that seeing such a beautiful image, he would be brought to know the author himself that made it.”[16] Calvin goes on to say that “But he [humankind] does not deduce, by himself, all the things that can be considered in God, but he shows that we come to know his power and eternal divinity. For it is of necessity that he who is the author of all things, be without beginning and consist of himself. ”[17] He goes on to state that though such knowledge should bring us to worship the one true God, due to our blindness it does not. Rather, though we come to know of the existence and power of the one true God (in spite of our blindness), we cannot come to know this true God so as to worship him (because of our blindness).[18] Thus, humans are guilty. But which humans? One final quote from Calvin’s commentary on Romans should suffice to make this point quite clear, “Because they knew God. He declares here, quite obviously, that God made a knowledge of his majesty run [the French word descouler gives the notion of a river running down a mountain] down into the spirits of all men: which is to say that he has shown himself so much, by his works, that they are forced to see that which they do not seek by themselves, that is, that there is a God.”[19] There can be no doubt as to how John Calvin though these verses should be interpreted. But perhaps some would not consider him “up-to-date”? Let us consider, in closing, the thoughts of one of the most well-known contemporary reformed commentators, Douglas Moo, thinks about the proper interpretation of Romans 1:18-21.

            Douglas Moo answers the very question that we are asking here by noting the traditional answer, “Whose experience does Paul describe in these verses? Traditionally, it has been assumed almost without argument that Paul is depicting the situation of Gentiles.”[20] He notes that some recent scholarship has attempted to argue that Paul was talking about Adam and Eve, and the experience of the Fall, but states that the evidence falls overwhelmingly in favour of the traditional interpretation,[21] with the qualification that these verses my also include the Jews (and, thus, be referring to all humanity).[22] Moo notes that there are some important elements in this text that force us to accept the interpretation by which these verses apply to all humans of all times: first of all, the Greek terms are in the aorist tense, and, “Scholars have long recognized that the Greek aorist tense does not, in itself, indicate ‘one-time’ action; it can depict action of all kinds, including continuous and repeated action. Some grammarians would go even further and claim that the aorist (even in the indicative mood) has, in itself, no indication of time of action either.”[23] Therefore, it is better to understand this passage as being the experience of all men of all time. Secondly, “this view [the view espoused by Van Til: that these verses apply only to Adam and Eve] fails to explain the heart of this passage: the characterization of all those upon whom the wrath of God falls as those who possessed the truth of God but turned from it.”[24] Moo concludes that, “Paul says more than that all people experienced the consequences of an original turning away from God, or even that all people shared such an original turning away. He insists that those who turned were also those who knew better, and who are consequently deserving of God's wrath. This, coupled with the obviously universal thrust of vv. 18 and 32, makes clear that this foolish and culpable rejection of the knowledge of God is repeated in every generation, by every individual.”[25]

            It seems, then, that one of the first Reformed theologians and Bible commentators (John Calvin), and at least one contemporary Reformed Bible commentator (Douglas Moo), agree, against Van Til, that Romans 1:18-21 is the experience of all humans of all times—that is, that God’s existence, power and divine nature is so manifest in the universe that all men know (at least in potency, if not in actuality) that God exists; but, because they reject this knowledge of God, they are reprehensible before God.


Concluding Thoughts

            Based upon our preliminary thoughts on Orthodoxy, and based upon our consideration of the thoughts of some reformed thinkers (we tried to choose those whom we thought would be taken as “most authoritative”, at least in relation to Presuppositionalism: John Calvin, Francis Turretin, J. Gresham Machen,[26] the Westminster Confession, and the properly interpreted divinely inspired scriptures), the question begs asking: Is Presuppositionalism, at least in part (specifically in its denial of the very first line of the very first article of the very first chapter of the Westminster confession) Unorthodox?



[1]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (2007; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), 7.

[2]Ibid., 4.

[3]Ibid., 9. Cf. Ibid., 10.

[4]Ibid., 16.

[5]Calvin, IRC, t.1, c.5, s. 6. My translation. Italics are mine. In French we read, « Je voulais seulement observer ici qu’il y a une voie commune aux païens et aux croyants de l’église de rechercher Dieu, en suivant ses traces, comme ils sont esquissés dans le firmament et sur la terre, comme les peintures de son image. » Beveridge translates this line as: “I only wish to observe here that this method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineament of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth, is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church. (Calvin, IRC, trans. Beveridge, 20.)”

[6]Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elentic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing: 1992-97), 1:6.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Cf. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the Faith (1974; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1982), 100.

[9]Turretin, IET, 6.

[10]Turretin, IET, 6.

[11]J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965.), 15.

[12]Ibid., 17.

[13]Ibid., 16.

[14]Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the Faith (1974; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1982), 100.

[15]Jean Calvin, Commentaires sur l’épîstre aux Romains, dans Commentaires de Jehan Calvin sur le Nouveau Testament (Paris : Librairie de Ch. Meyrueis et co., 1855), 3 : 25-27.

[16]Ibid., 26. My translation. In French we read, “Quand il dit que Dieu le leur a manifesté : le sens est, que l'homme a esté créé à ceste fin qu'il fust contemplateur de cest excellent ouvrage du monde : que les yeux luy ont esté donnez afin qu'en regardant une si belle image, il soit amené à cognoistre l'autheur mesme qui l'a faite.”

[17]Ibid. My Translation. In French we read, “Or il ne déduit pas par le menu toutes les choses qui peuvent
estre considérées en Dieu, mais il monstre qu'on parvient jusques à cognoistre sa puissance et Divinité éternelle. Car il faut nécessairement que celuy qui est autheur de toutes choses, soit sans commencement, et consiste de soy-mesme. »

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid. My Translation. In French we read, “Pource qu'ayons cognu Dieu. Il déclare yci apertement, que Dieu a fait descouler dedans les esprits de tous hommes une cognoissance de sa majesté : c'est-à-dire qu'il s'est tellement démonstre par ses oeuvres, qu'il leur est force de veoir ce qu'ils ne cherchent pas d'euxmesmes, asçavoir qu'il y a quelque Dieu. »

[20]Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 96.

[21]Ibid., 96-98.

[22]Ibid., 97.

[23]Ibid., 98fn21.

[24]Ibid., 98.

[25]Ibid.

[26]To this list could also be added the names of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostome, B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, and many others.

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