More Spalled Concrete

Scott Oliphint
In our last two articles, we've been dealing with various objections that continue to be offered against a Covenantal approach to apologetics. The objection that we considered last time needs more explanation and discussion that we were able to give it in one article. We will continue that discussion in this article (and the next) in order to try more fully to address the objection itself. The hope is that these responses will be taken into account if the objection continues to be offered, rather than, as is often the case, simply repeating the objection as if nothing has been offered in response.

Though these objections to "presuppositionalism" continue to be asserted, they are rarely argued, and they rarely deal with the actual matters at hand. So, for example, as we saw last time, one common objection is this:
While [the Covenantal and Classical approaches to apologetics] appear to agree ontologically, they differ epistemologically. Both are in accord on the necessity of the Christian view of God being the ontological ground for all meaning and truth (what). However, one would have to agree with the Classical view that how we know this is true [sic]. Here it seems that some sort of rational argument is needed epistemologically to establish one view over the other. In the final analysis, the Presuppositionalist has not successfully refuted the charge that it confuses epistemology and ontology.[1]
The charge, therefore, is that (1) the presuppositionalist (or Covenantal apologist) denies that "some sort of rational argument is needed epistemologically to establish one view over the other," and that (2) the presuppositionalist (or Covenantal apologist) "has not successfully refuted the charge that it confuses epistemology and ontology."

The first charge above is fraught with significant ambiguity. What, for example, is meant by "some sort of rational argument"? Is it meant to be in contrast to some sort of irrational argument? Would the Covenantal approach argue for the irrational? If not, is the Covenantal approach advocating for a "sort of" rational argument that is antithetical to the Classical approach's "sort of" rational argument? 

If those questions are resolved, we could ask what the phrase "epistemologically to establish one view over the other" might mean? Does it mean some sort of rational argument is needed to establish one's epistemology? Or does it mean that some sort of rational argument is needed to establish the epistemology of each of the two views? It's difficult to know, exactly, what the problem is, in the way it is stated.

Presumably, when the complaint is that one needs some sort of rational argument epistemologically to establish one view over another, the point is likely that there must be an argument, or arguments, given, that would show one of the apologetic views to be on the best epistemological foundation, while the other remains either on a weaker foundation, or on no foundation at all.

To try to put these ambiguities in their best possible light, what is probably meant is that, in order to clear up an alleged "confusion" between ontology and epistemology (charge #2 above), the Classical view, since it deals with how we know what we know, alone provides a rational argument, which argument establishes its epistemology as foundational to its apologetic approach. Even in this construal, however, it is difficult to know if "some sort of" rational argument provided establishes the epistemology of the Classical view, or if it provides for the rationality of the apologetic approach of the Classical view, or both, or neither.

In spite of these significant ambiguities, I'm fairly confident that what the objection points to is an epistemological difference between a Covenantal approach to apologetics and a Thomistic (called, "Classical") approach. The epistemological difference has been couched in terms of "how" we know, and, perhaps, "how" we know, or can know, the existence of God. In a Thomistic approach, we can know the existence of God by way of rational demonstration. The reason Thomas affirms this approach is theologically significant.

Thomas was convinced that the existence of God was not self-evident to us.[2] There are two ways that a proposition can be self-evident, he says. It can be self-evident in itself, which means that the subject is contained in the predicate, or it can be self-evident to us, which assumes that the subject is contained in the predicate and that we understand the terms of the proposition. So, the statement, "God exists" is self-evident in itself because God is identical with His existence (thus, the subject is contained in the predicate). The problem is, however, that such a statement cannot be self-evident to us because we do not know the essence of God. So, God's existence has to be demonstrated from things that we know in order to conclude, on the basis of what we know, to something that we do not know. For example, we know the process of cause and effect, and we can, therefore, move from that known process to the otherwise unknown existence of the First Cause.

In the context of this discussion, Thomas maintains that faith presupposes natural knowledge even as the grace of God presupposes nature. This epistemological situation, then, could perhaps be described this way: Because we are born into the world "naturally," and because we acquire a massive amount of "natural" knowledge, even before (or perhaps without) our conversion to Christianity, it must be the case that the natural knowledge that we have is epistemologically foundational, because prior to, the faith that we exercise (if we do) when converted, or the grace that we receive. This is consistent with a statement from a Thomistic apologist that we have highlighted before, "...people do not necessarily consider themselves in opposition to God, whose existence they do not even know at the outset...They simply operate according to human nature."[3] 

As I noted in the last article, whenever there are differences in apologetic method, including its epistemology, the first place to go for analysis and explanation of those differences is in the theology that undergirds the apologetic. So, the epistemological objections to a Covenantal apologetic are, first of all, theological, and must be addressed in that light.

There are two, fundamental, theological truths that must be brought into any apologetic, including epistemological, discussion. The first truth is that every single individual, since the creation of Adam, is created as "image of God." Though it might be difficult precisely to define exactly of what that image consists, included in any description of the image must be that every person is responsible to God in every aspect of his life. In other words, we cannot be content simply to describe the image of God as some kind of basic rationality, or moral sense, unless we include in that rationality and moral sense the reality of the presence of, and responsibility toward, God in all that we do and think.

It is not proper, therefore, especially when apologetic method is in view, to refer to something like "human nature," as if such a thing could be independent of our relationship to God. To be as image of God means to be in relationship to (i.e., covenant with) God. There is no "human nature" that is not itself "image of God" nature. As human beings we are "situated" within the context of God`s presence, and are, by virtue of that situatedness, images of his. We live and move and have our being in him. This is true whether we are covenant-keepers (in Christ), or covenant-breakers (in Adam). In either case, we are covenant creatures, with God as our ultimate and ever-present environment, responsible to image him in all of our living, thinking and doing. It should be obvious that this truth carries with it a multitude of epistemological implications and entailments.

Secondly, one of those entailments -- as we have been at pains repeatedly to argue -- is that, at our most basic and fundamental level of existence, we all know God. This is where Thomas, and those who follow him in this matter, went wrong. He read Romans 1:20 as proof that God's existence could be demonstrated. But that is not Paul's point. Paul's point, as a matter of fact, is the opposite. His point is that there is no person on the face of the earth, nor has there ever been, who will be excused before the judgment seat of God, and the reason there will be no excuse is that God has ensured that each and every person He has created is, at the same time, one who knows Him. Thus, contrary to Aquinas and those who follow him, the existence of God is indeed self-evident to us, and not in need of demonstration in order to be known. Not only is the proposition, "God exists," self-evident in itself, but God has made sure that its truth is self-evident to us, because He is always and everywhere revealing Himself to us, and that revelation always and inevitably gets through.

Given this, why would we want to locate our epistemology in our rational faculty or in our empirical observations? The history of philosophy should be ample evidence of the bankruptcy that epistemology continues to declare throughout its history. Generally speaking, the reason the Empiricists rose up to argue their empirical epistemology is because the Rationalists, prior to them, had been unable to establish a way of knowing. The reason Immanuel Kant rose up to argue for his "synthetic" approach to epistemology is because the Rationalists had failed and the Empiricist view, though it provided the alarm to wake him up, had led to nothing but utter skepticism. But Kant's view denied any knowledge of the "real" and so allowed only for a subjective world. And on and on it goes. Surely, even those who want to be faithful to Thomas will realize that what "nature" can provide, if considered in and of itself, is a "foundation" that is constantly crumbling and always in need of more concrete. But the only concrete used to bolster the crumbling edifice is the same, spalled, concrete that was present before, and which was responsible for the crumbling in the first place.

Our theology informs and establishes our epistemology in that the former allows us to posit a solid foundation for the latter. Instead of thinking that there is such a thing as a religiously neutral "human nature," we recognize that all people are God's image. As image, we all recognize and understand who our Creator is, and we know what He is like. John Calvin puts it this way:
Men of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity which can never be effaced is engraved upon men's minds. Indeed, the perversity of the impious, who though they struggle furiously are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God, is abundant testimony that this conviction, namely, that there is some God, is naturally inborn in all, and is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow. ...For the world...tries as far as it is able to cast away all knowledge of God, and by every means to corrupt the worship of him. I only say that though the stupid hardness in their minds, which the impious eagerly conjure up to reject God, wastes away, yet the sense of divinity, which they greatly wished to have extinguished, thrives and presently burgeons. From this we conclude that it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother's womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget, although many strive with every nerve to this end.[4]
There is no "human nature" here, except a human nature that, apart from the saving grace of God, constantly attempts to wipe away that knowledge of God that is ever-present in every person's heart, and in the world in which we live.

Epistemologically, therefore, the "natural" which faith and grace presuppose, is the natural true knowledge of God. All people do know God at the outset, contrary to Thomistic views. This natural knowledge comes "through the things that are made" such that, in knowing the world, we always and automatically know God. The "connection," therefore, between the person (subject) and the world (object) is the revealing activity of God which itself renders the one who knows God by knowing the world inexcusable before Him.

Instead of "confusing" the epistemological and the ontological, therefore, a Covenantal (presuppositional) approach to apologetics sees the two as inextricably linked. With respect to our existence as image of God, we cannot have the one without the other. Because God is the ontological presupposition of all that is, His revelation is the epistemological presupposition as well. How could it be any other way? If God is the foundation of everything, which both approaches affirm, how could He be anything but the foundation for knowledge?

These theological truths find their proximate home in the theology that came out of the Reformation. The truth of the matter is that unless one is committed to that theology, there will be glaring inconsistencies in one's theology and, therefore, in one's apologetic and one's epistemology. Speaking of the Reformation and epistemology, Richard Muller says this:
The critique leveled by the Reformation at medieval theological presuppositions added a soteriological dimension to the epistemological problem. Whereas the medieval doctors had assumed that the fall affected primarily the will and its affections and not the reason, the Reformers assumed also the fallenness of the rational faculty: a generalized or "pagan" natural theology, according to the Reformers, was not merely limited to nonsaving knowledge of God-- it was also bound in idolatry. This view of the problem of knowledge is the single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers to the theological prolegomena of orthodox Protestantism.[5]
One cannot blame Thomas, at least not completely, for his notion of rational neutrality; he had no access to the genius of the Reformation. But surely, since then, Protestant theology should recognize the futility of religious neutrality and instead see God and His activity as foundational to everything, even to our processes of knowing.

In our next article, we'll show that even Thomas himself was insistent that ontology and epistemology must be seen as implying each other. Perhaps the "confusion" between the two is in those who think such a notion to be confused.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013), p. 172. We use this article as representative of a (so-called) "Classical" approach to apologetics. It is not so much the author that we have in view here, but the apologetic approach to which the author and many others adhere.

[2] In the material that follows, I will be following and summarizing Thomas' discussion in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 1.2ff. Just to be clear, this is not a discussion about whether or not Thomas argues as a Christian, rather it is whether or not Thomas' chosen method of argumentation is consistent with biblical truth.

[3] R.C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, ed. Sproul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 203.

[4] Calvin, Inst. I.iii.3, pp. 45-46

[5] Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725: Prolegomena to Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 108 (my emphases)