Presuppositionalism, Evidentialism, and Gordon H. Clark

(In Response)

Just to measure carefully, if one is using arguments, one is providing evidence.

Sometimes the best evidence for something is that everything contrary has been shown to be either false or self contradictory (incoherent) and so this or that must be true, even if we are not providing positive evidence. Providing empirical evidence for someone that we claim is not empirical (God) has always been a bit of a stretch because of the problem of induction. Bahnsen, in “the Great Debate”, certainly set out to prove the existence of God, though apart from the traditional empirical means. The Van Tillian methodology as a whole is particularly about proving the existence of God, even if by the mere impossibility of the contrary, which is a rationalistic argument. X’ is the only rational answer therefore the correct answer; y’ an impossible answer therefore a false answer. In this, rationality is the precondition.

If God truly is the necessary precondition of intelligibility the argument holds, but the presupposition is then “intelligibility” and not God because the validity of the logic is then the precondition of the deduction that “God exists” as the conclusion of the argument. Every worthy argument has premises and a conclusion. If we don’t take it this way, God is then proved to exist because He is the precondition of proving that He exists. i.e., circularity, and that is problematic.

To put it another way, no matter how forcefully someone argues that “God” is the presupposition of an argument, at the end of the day, it is logic. This is necessary because God is the conclusion of the argument. Now Clark (The Christian philosopher Gordon H. Clark), dealt with this necessity by identifying God, His mind, His being, with logic itself, saying that God is logic, and so logic is neither the a priori condition of the conclusion that God exists nor the a posteriori learned response to God’s prior non-rational existence creating logic. (Both Greg Bahnsen and John Frame seem to have followed Clark on this, consciously, even going so far as to specifically point out the distance from Van Til on this issue of the relationship between God and logic, including Van Til’s denial that logic was an aspect of the divine nature rather than a merely human and finite function or an aspect of the creation itself, or in one possible interpretation of Van Til’s thought, that God and man simply have different “logics” with no epistemological point of contact. Clark had theological eccentricities of his own but these were not them.)

If presupposing logic is not identical with presupposing God, one is essentially an Evidentialist, even if one’s methodological affirmations deny it. God is either the precondition of all intelligibility or He is the logical consequence of intelligibility. If one has an argument that the existence of God is the consequence of, as in, “…therefore, God exists.” it is Evidential.

Because of the epistemological limitations imposed upon all finite beings by them not being God, like that we cannot prove that our experiences of the external world are accurate representations of what actually exists, and that we cannot prove that other minds exist, that we can neither prove nor justify the laws of logic without using them, which is circular and so means that nothing is in itself justifiable, everyone is really, in the ultimate and final analysis, no matter how hard we fight against the inevitability of it all, a fideist of sorts.

We either submit to God in His revelatory knowledge as the ground, beginning and end of all knowledge or none can be had. We are either empty or full. Meaningful or meaningless. Something or nothing.

Still, the Christian only says this about what can be known by what we might call “natural”, or worldly, or autonomous methodologies; they all seem to end in nothing. What we can actually show is that every philosophical attempt to reach “knowledge” autonomously and independently, has failed; what we claim is that every future attempt will fail with every past attempt because religious truth is central to both the epistemological and moral aspects of the human project. What we are really saying is that in a strange way the Christian is the only one that is not a fideist. Secularists, tending to use the scientific method as their limiting function in the realm of knowledge takes the world and themselves on faith, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. So, as in many cases like this, what seems at first to be an epistemological problem, is actually a moral problem.

In Christian thought, everyone knows innately and without learning of the existence of God, and at least some of His moral and metaphysical attributes and these are the ground for self knowledge and the knowledge of the external world. The reason these cannot be “proven” by objective or non-religious epistemological methods is because there are no objective or non-religious epistemological methods that can arrive at knowledge. The Christian would love to provide everything the natural man claims is necessary to proving the existence of God through some kind of rational empirical data apart from God, but there are none, so we can’t.

Of course, this is not so much a flaw or weakness in Christian Apologetic method or in modern philosophy, or in the field of epistemology in general and certainly no cause to fall into that dreaded hole of epistemic skepticism. It is though, recognizing that by virtue of being a created thing that is a finite thing and yet a personal thing, there is something above us and beyond us that is necessary for the apprehension of any final truth or the measurement of any reliable noetic reference point that is universally personal in reference to our finite personality.

This is the greatest strength of Christian thought in general and of Christian apologetic labors in specific, that we begin with things as they really are in our most basic commitments and superficial experiences (consciousness and personality) and use this as the basis for self interpretation, instead of beginning with the hypothetical existence of a supposedly experienced “material” and arguing back from that whatever to a hopeful explanation of the fact that we are here to ask the question. In Christ, everything can be known and apart from Him little that might be claimed to be known would seem to be knowable. The issue of justification in philosophy is the absolute bar to humanistic attempts at knowledge; there simply is no non-religious justifiable knowledge.

Many brilliant Christian philosophers have the taken the epistemic path of Aristotelian Empiricism, mainly because of their own intuition that the external world is what they experience it to be, but an intuition has about the same epistemic weight in argument as a personal opinion or a feeling, and when there are no primary supports other than sensation for believing that our sensations tell us the truth about the world, our epistemology might eventually collapse into pure skepticism or mere wishful thinking.

Some seem to be adopting the method of merely repeating that we really know the world as it really is while calling those that deny it preposterous, and then affirming the preposterousness to the others that agree, but none of this should be confused with doing philosophy. Alvin Plantinga, one of the world’s best living philosophers, says that our apprehension of the external world should be considered a ‘Properly Basic Belief’, and perhaps it should, but we probably won’t be able to prove that and make it intelligible as a basis for knowledge, because if we could, whatever we used to prove it would be a basis for knowledge, and that in itself would not be “properly basic”, so really he is just saying that we don’t need to have any reason why, and maybe he’s right, but it’s hard to tell how.

The reason the humanists are winning these debates is because we keep pretending they know what they claim they know, for “the sake of argument” of course, in ways that they can’t even begin to justify, and then trying to base our retort to their claims upon the ground of their pretense of autonomous knowledge. It’s amazing we do as well as we with nothing very much in hand.

All of this is just to say that yes, God is the precondition of proving that God exists. That would be an especially bad problem if it were not so obvious, meaning, if God did really exist and were really the way that we think of Him as being, this is exactly what we might expect. If we can’t justify knowledge through any non-religious means, all the worse for non-religious attempts at the justification of knowledge. Perhaps the reason that knowledge cannot be justified in the absence of the personal deity or something so much like Him that to deny the identity is just quibbling over words, is because a true and real God who created and knows and sustains all things would actually be incapable of creating a personal being whose knowledge was somehow independent or autonomous, and that is the historic position, but wiser men than I have other theories.

This is the kind of thing that Clark was arguing, which is not that God is the necessary consequence of some apparent attributes of the neutrally apprehended world, or something we work back toward as the cause of all causes, but the condition of apprehension, cognition and reason. Some people choose to know nothing; some people choose to know God. Really everybody already knows God and so everyone already has real and true knowledge. These are the only two choices.

Christopher Neiswonger

Presuppositionalism, Evidentialism, and Gordon H. Clark, Presuppositionalism, Evidentialism, and Gordon H. Clark, Presuppositionalism, Evidentialism, and Gordon H. Clark, Presuppositionalism, Evidentialism, and Gordon H. Clark

10 thoughts on “Presuppositionalism, Evidentialism, and Gordon H. Clark

  1. “It is really a moral and not an epistemological problem.”

    The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.
    (Pro 1:7a)

    Natural men won’t accept that and fear the Lord, but it’s still the truth.


  2. Great article! Clark was a very smart man and he, at least to my knowledge, has never been answered in many circles. I actually was using “Clarkianism” today against a skeptic philosophy major from Northern Kentucky University.
    I once had a chance to speak with Dr. Bruce Ware, when he came to Cincinnati for a conference on the Trinity. He told me about Clark, “don’t be a groupie” or, don’t follow Clarks methodology. I am very glad I did not take his advice. As long as it is far the glory of Christ and the advancement of His Kingdom, and not pride may God continue to bless our efforts.


  3. Clark was one of the early last century titans. One of the few to have the intellectual goods and also hold to an orthodox Christian theology. By that I mean traditional confessional orthodoxy, not the “Orthodox” churches in the east. Still, I agree with the “don’t be a groupie” thing. There is an old saying in theology, “everybody has their 10%”. I don’t know who came up with it, but it seems true that if you follow any body’s theology closely enough, you will find out that something they believe is weird (except for you and I of course 🙂

    A central theme in Clark’s methodology is the self-refuting nature of the denial of truth being both necessary and knowable. I’m sure Bruce Ware knows that, and I’m also sure that that is not what he had in mind when he cautioned you about Clark’s methodology. People usually mean Clark’s denial that sensation is a means of knowledge; a peculiar kettle of fish for Clark. But his arguments refuting every color of skepticism in favor of an Augustinian style theory of epistemology proper? Priceless.

    Sometimes it takes a while for people to take in that Christians were not empiricists (as a general rule) until after Aquinas revived the forgotten paganism of Aristotle in the 12th century, but this is only a tangentially related issue. Which epistemological system is the correct one is not as important as for the Christian to steadfastly maintain that skepticism is patently unChristain and that God is to us and for us the source of truth.

    We don’t think that some knowledge comes from God; we think that all of it does.

    All the best,

    Christopher Neiswonger


  4. Somewhere in one of the chapters in “God’s Hammer” Clark quoted K. Barth (favorably) in criticism of Natural Theology by stating that (my paraphrase!) any G-O-D you prove, if he/it is not “distincte in tribus personis,” i.e., the triune God as he is revealed in the Bible, then the inevitable result is a blank, empty name floating in our brains without any idea of the true God (even though I doubt Clark thought brains think!).

    This has always helped me when confronted with evidential arguments, TAG’s, or any argument or reasoning that predicates “God is …” The fact that there are lots of G-O-D’s out there being proved convinced me to stick to basic Clarkian Scripturalism and is probably why I’m a presupp who think’s all arguments for the existence of God are faulty, even though they can be sometimes helpful. Helpful if your antagonist is someone like a Van Tilian TAGer or an evidentialist.

    But then I’m an admitted Clarkian cultist thoroughly brainwashed even though brains can’t be washed even though most of them need to be.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s