Over the past year or so, a colleague of mine has been telling me of his concerns about how Presuppositionalism (or some watered-down version thereof) infuses the thinking of certain popular Young-Earth Creationists if not Young-Earth Creationism in general. Though he himself is an Old-Earth creationist, he came to me with his concerns because, being a Classical Apologist, he knows that I am both a classical apologist and a Young-Earth Creationist. Apparently we are a small group.
Tonight I had the opportunity to visit a local church in my area where Ken Ham was lecturing. Ham was talking about how to defend the Christian faith. I wanted to hear “from the horse’s mouth,” if you will, how one of the main Young-Earth Creationists would characterize the apologetic task. It’s worse than I thought, despite the fact that my colleague had been trying to tell me just how bad it was. I probably am not far from Ham’s views on many things. I might push the age of the Earth a little further back than he does. But I hold to a literal reading of Gen. 1-11, which would include maintaining a literal Adam and Eve, the Fall of the human race in Adam’s sin, the corruption and cursing of the cosmos as a result of this Fall, a universal, global catastrophic flood in Noah’s time (together with the Ark and the animals just as Genesis says), and the tower of Babel and the confusion of languages. I might even agree with some of Ham’s arguments for some of these particular points. (I’m not sure if this is so only because I’m not too familiar with Ham’s arguments here.)
However, I strongly object to how Ham characterizes the task of how the Christian can or ought to defend the faith. I won’t at this juncture comment too much (if at all) as to whether or to what extent Ham’s apologetic approach lines up with the more authoritative and perhaps familiar names associated with Presuppositionalism (all the more because of the fact that there are variations within the Presuppositionalist camp itself (Van Til/Bahnsen vs. Clark vs. Schaeffer vs. Frame, et al.)) I would even be willing to grant that, strictly speaking, Ham’s view does not even warrant the label of ‘Presuppositionalism.’ By whatever name his view should go, I am convinced that his way of defending the faith is bankrupt if not self-refuting. A few comments are in order.
First, Ham claimed that there are only two ways to understand reality, viz., according to God’s word or according to man’s word. But this is fraught with problems. Ham did not clarify for us exactly how one was to understand reality by God’s word. What exactly would this mean? Is not God’s word part of reality? Thus, is he saying that we understand reality (as a whole) by utilizing a part of reality in understanding it? But then, how are we to understand that part of reality that is God’s word in the first place? And if we are able to understand the part of reality that is God’s word without any appeal to another (antecedent) part of reality, then why can we not do that with the other parts of reality? In other words, if we need that part of reality which is God’s word to understand the rest of reality which is not God’s word, then how is it that we are able to understand the part of reality that is God’s word in the first place? Why should the part of reality that is God’s word be understandable by us if the rest of reality that is not God’s word needs another part of reality (viz., God’s word) to understand it? It gets worse.
Second, Ham never even acknowledged the issue of how does one interpret the word of God? From where would one get one’s principles of hermeneutics (i.e., principles of interpretation)? He cannot say that we get these principles from God’s word, because we would need to be able to understand God’s word in order to get the principles. But then, if we are able to understand God’s word in order to get our principles of hermeneutics, then that would mean that we were able to understand God’s word before we got our principles, which would mean that we wouldn’t need the principles after all. This is a contradiction. But if Ham cannot get from God’s word his principles of interpretation that he needs in order to understand God’s word (and there are only two ways to understand reality according to Ham) then he would have to say that he gets his principles of interpretation from man’s word. But of course, this will not do since Ham’s ultimate point is that man’s word is faulty (if not deceptive) and thus wrong when it comes to reality. For him to claim that he gets his principles of interpretation from man’s word while arguing what he does about man’s word would be self-refuting. It boils down to the fact that Ham is either contradictory or self-refuting. But any position that entails contradiction or self-refutation must have one or more false premises. His false premise is that there are only two ways to understand reality, viz., according to God’s word or according to man’s word. It gets worse.
Third, throughout his talk, Ham emphasized that there are only two “starting points.” This was another way of saying that we either understand reality by God’s word or by man’s word. On my drive home, I imagined having a conversation with him. A few minutes into our imaginary discussion (after he perhaps detected some opposition from me) Ham asks me what my “starting point” is. I would then try to give a most outrageous answer (in order to force the issue). Suppose I said my “starting point” was “Everything is equal to four.” Now, no matter how wrong he might regard my “starting point” to be, it remains that my “starting point” would not retroactively be able to negate what was, up to the point when he ask me what my “starting point” was, a meaningful conversation. Despite the fact that I might have the wrong “starting point” (in Ham’s view) we were (and are) able to have adequate communication. This is revealing. In fact, by the time he asked what my “starting point” was, we were both way beyond our “starting points.” We both had already “started” before we began our conversation. The problem is that the imagery of ‘starting points’ is not the way he should be describing the situation. An illustration might help show what I’m getting at. Suppose two people meet each other in the middle of the desert. Both are trying to find their way to the city. What point would it make for one to ask the other “What is your starting point?” The fact is that what is needed is not a discussion about “starting points,” but about the directions to the city. It wouldn’t matter where either of their “starting points” had been as far as how they are to get to the city from where they are now. What I think Ham must be trying to get at is not “starting points” but something like a paradigm. He’s seems to be trying to describe different manners in which one might understand reality. For example, he might be trying to argue that the Christian must have a biblical world view. As a philosopher and a Christian, I can certainly appreciate this. But framing the issue this way can be problematic. He needs to make sure that he doesn’t sound like he’s saying that everyone is using some interpretive template (biblical or otherwise) according to which he “understands” reality. (This is a problem with a lot of contemporary “world view” conversations that are going on in some apologetic circles.) The problem with framing the issue this way is that it amounts of what philosophers call ‘perspectivalism.’ Perspectivialism says that each one has his own perspective on reality (perhaps determined by one’s up-bringing, one’s gender, one’s race, one’s culture—there are lots of options). Such perspectivalism denies that any one perspective is privileged or can claim to be the objective truth. But the Christian should not be merely claiming that we “understand” reality by God’s word while everyone else understands reality by man’s word. Not only is this plagued with the problem I outlined above, but it in itself does not get the discussion where it needs to be when we are trying to defend the faith to the unbeliever. What the Christian should be claiming is that his Christian view of things is the truth. It is the way things are. It is not merely a perspective—Christian or otherwise. Now, I have no doubt that Ham would agree that when Christians make their claims they mean to be understood as making claims about the way things really are. The problem is that, because of the way he has set up the discussion, he has precluded himself from advancing that claim. Instead of trying to defend his faith by claiming that it only is according to God’s word, he should be claiming that the Christian faith is true. By ‘true’ here I mean that the claims of the Christian faith correspond to reality. Reality is the only proper “starting point” and the measure of what it means for any claim to be true. Now God is ultimate reality and He is the Creator of all that exists besides Himself. But the advantages of grounding the argument in the real are several. Reality (which includes God and His creation) is that which we come to know in all its multifaceted aspects by means of the faculties of knowing that God as created us with. Further, reality serves as the only source from which one can obtain his principles of interpretation to be able to understand God’s word. Having grounded our hermeneutics in reality, we can further our knowledge by availing ourselves to the truths about reality that God has revealed in the Bible (which could not have otherwise been known). These two categories are what theologians call General Revelation (specifically, truths about God that can be known from creation by means of the faculties of our senses and our reason) and Special Revelation (truths that God as revealed through His prophets, apostles, and His own Son).
Being a Presuppositionalist, Ham denies that there is any neutral ground in the conversation between the Christian and the non-Christian. Since there is no neutral ground (his argument goes), then the position that anyone ends up with is determined by the “starting point” with which that one begins. So the task (Ham would continue) is to get the non-Christian to change his “starting point.” But how is that done? Ham says that we can’t do it. Only God can change one’s “starting point.” To be sure, Ham insists, God can use the “arguments” and “evidence” that Christians marshal to effect such a change. But the change only comes by God. Now, what Christian could quarrel with this? Let me see if I can. Ham here is confusing apologetics with evangelism. No apologist with whom I am familiar would deny that only God can change someone’s heart. But at the same time, no apologist with whom I am familiar would ever claim that it was the task of apologetics in the first place to effect such a change in the unbeliever’s heart. Indeed, you cannot “argue someone into the Kingdom of God.” Ham is confusing understanding with believing; apprehending with receiving. The unbeliever can be made to understand and apprehend the claims of Christianity. Apologetics can serve to demolish skeptical arguments and demonstrate the truths of much of the Christian faith (e.g., the objectivity of truth; truth as correspondence to reality; sound principles of hermeneutics; the existence and attributes of God, the historicity of the Bible) even if it cannot demonstrate the truths of other claims of Christianity that must be taken by faith (e.g., Christ died for our sins, Christ is coming again). But apologetics cannot compel the unbeliever to receive the things of God. It cannot tread where only the Holy Spirit can tread—into the hearts of men. Apologetics is not evangelism. (You can insert you own “horse,” “water,” and “drink” cliché here.)
Thus, it is not an insult to God (nor is it a repeal of the Fall) to say that there is much common (neutral) ground between the believer and the unbeliever. This is the only God-honoring view to hold, for it acknowledges that there is nowhere the unbeliever can hide in all reality where he is not standing on some ground that can be shown to point to its Creator. Sometimes it might take cogent arguments to get the unbeliever to see this. But it is reality and ultimate reality that God is calling everyone to acknowledge and embrace.