The Epistemological Problem of Presuppositional Apologetics

Just to show how epistemologically problematic the apologetic strategies of Van Til are . . .

Mr Irons does not, indeed, deny that ‘there is design in nature, and that God is the author of it,’ but holds that it cannot be discerned by human reason without the light of Revelation, and that ‘the believer in Revelation alone has any right to entertain the doctrine of design.’ The whole object of his book is to ‘set forth, in the clearest manner, that though atheism is an impossibility, and irreligion misery, yet that man, by his unassisted natural powers, could never have certainly determined any one truth of theology or religion.’ What is the precise import of this statement? Does it mean that while ‘there is design in nature, and God is the author of it,’ yet man is unable, by his unassisted natural powers, to discern that design, or to deduce from it any valid proof of the being and perfections of God? Then how, on that supposition, can it be said that ‘Atheism is an impossibility?’ or that ‘the believer in Revelation alone has any right to entertain the doctrine of design?’ Without a Revelation, Atheism would seem, on his showing, to be inevitable, and of course innocent: and even with a Revelation, it might seem difficult to say how the believer himself could draw from the works of nature any proof of the Divine Being and Perfections; so that this belief must rest solely on the ground of authority, unless, indeed, Revelation be supposed to confer a new faculty of intellectual perception and inference, which enables man to discern design, always existing in nature but hitherto undiscovered, and to deduce conclusions from it which were undiscoverable before.—Or does the statement mean merely, that ‘while there is design in nature, and God is the author of it,’ man never did, in point of fact, make the discovery of God’s Being from the study of His works, without the concurrent light of Revelation, either shining direct on those to whom it was vouchsafed, or transmitted partially through the obscure medium of oral tradition? Then how, on this supposition, can his doctrine be supposed to be at variance with that of Paley and all other Christian writers, who have unanimously concurred in the belief of a primeval Revelation, unless it be intended to affirm further, that man has no capacity to infer from the works of nature the existence of its Author, even after a Revelation has been given?

Mr Irons seems to labour under a superfluous and somewhat morbid jealousy for the honour of Revelation. In so far as the a posteriori argument is concerned, he would teach Reason to know and to keep its own place. ‘I would have the Deist left to his own Theological resources, that the futility of his attempts might show him the necessity of a Revelation. I would prove that a strictly Natural Theology is unattainable; so that all men who feel that some Theology is indispensable may be unable to avoid the conclusion in favour of Revelation.’ But can ‘the necessity of Revelation’ be established on no better ground than that which may be found amidst the crumbling ruins of ‘the argument from design?’ or if that argument be inept and inconclusive, to what higher or surer evidence can Revelation itself appeal? Perhaps there may be a quicker, a more intuitive perception, which supersedes argument in both cases, ‘an act of pure reason,’ which is a priori, and, as such, exclusive of all reasoning: and for this reason, apparently, Mr Irons undertakes to ‘vindicate the position that the truths of Revelation are eternal necessary truths of Reason, spiritually discerned, i.e. not cognisable by sense.’— Suppose they were,—which we are very far, however, from admitting,—what then? Why, that the existence, providence, and government of God, which are revealed in Scripture, ought to be regarded as ‘eternal and necessary truths of Reason,’ in common, however, with the more peculiar doctrines of Revelation,—mediation, atonement, regeneration, repentance, and faith; and thus the domain of Reason, so far from being curtailed, is extended, so as to embrace every thing that is usually supposed to rest on the authority of Revelation!

The Atheist gladly accepts, and freely quotes, his testimony against Natural Theology, but leaves him in undisputed possession of the ‘eternal and necessary truths of Reason,—not cognisable by sense. (James Buchanan, Faith in God and Modern Atheism: Compared in Their Essential Nature, Theoretic Grounds, and Practical Influence, Volume 1, p. 362 – 365)

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