Classical Apologetics (RC Sproul)

I want to thank Tim Enloe for providing me with a copy. Please go by his site and check it out. He knows more about education and church history than I ever will.

Sproul, R.C., Gerstner, John., Lindsley, Arthur. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984.

There are several main challenges in responding to presuppositionalism. There is no easy way to begin. Another difficulty is that the book is somewhat out of date. For one, Van Til never formalized the Transcendental Argument (hereafter TAG). Bahnsen and Frame fully developed it a decade or so after this book’s publication. Another difficulty is that key Reformed sources weren’t translated at this time. Even though the classical position is correct and matches what one finds in Turretin, Turretin wasn’t yet translated. The same goes for Junius, Olevianus, etc. Yea, even Muller had not yet published his opus.

On a positive note, if presups would make one or two adjustments, their system isn’t very different from classical systems. This leads to probably the most important point in the book. Historic Reformed Christianity distinguished between the order of knowing and the order of being. From such a view, logic is first in man’s order of knowing. God is first in man’s order of being. Some classical authors have used this correct point to say they have refuted presuppositionalism. I don’t see why presups cannot practically use this. They’ll have to change (or better yet, drop) some of their rhetoric on “autonomous” starting points, but much of the system can be salvaged.

Part 1 is the authors’ case for natural theology. It’s not different from any historic Reformed prolegomena. Key idea: “Natural theology refers to knowledge of God acquired through nature…natural theology is dependent upon divine revelation for its content” (Sproul et al, 25).

Key idea 2: “The pagan’s problem is not that he does not know that God is, but that he does not like the God who is” (39). You might be thinking, “This is exactly what presuppositionalism teaches.” That is true, and if that were all presuppositionalism taught, we would be on board. As Sproul will develop the argument later, presuppositionalism wants to say that the pagan knows God but doesn’t have any knowledge of God. He has false knowledge of God. The problem there is that if he has false knowledge of God, then why would he try to suppress it (49)?

Part 2 is the authors’ case for the theistic arguments. This section is good, but almost all of it has been better stated in recent years. Their view of the ontological argument is important for the doctrine of God, so we will spend some time looking at it.

Most forms of the ontological argument begin with the innocent premise, “A necessary being may exist” (Sproul 100). Moreover, there is no logical contradiction in our being able to think about a necessary being. “If we can think of God at all, we are compelled to think that He is. God is being. It is undeniable that we do think of being…We cannot not think of being” (100).

It feels that Gerstner went too fast on this point, for as it stands he has merely proven pantheism. What he does later is distinguish God’s being from our being, but if we can’t help but think about being, then are we thinking about God’s being or ours? This is why Anselm is safer than Jonathan Edwards, and it is to Anselm that we now turn.

Key idea: God is that which none greater can be conceived. If a perfect being has “necessary existence” as one of its properties, then this perfect being has to exist. On a formal level, it works. Anselm’s disciples, of whom I am one, will have to rebut Kant’s criticism, but the argument itself is fairly stable.

Regarding the section on miracles, I just want to deal with Hume’s critique. When Hume attacks miracles as violating natural law and the instances of conformity, he not only gets rid of miracles, he gets rid of anything unusual (151). As the authors note, “Uniformity itself rests upon repetition, a series or sequence of some or similar events. But the series can never be established because before there can be two such similar events there must be a first one. The first, however, would be unique and therefore incredible.”

The Critique of Presuppositionalism

The heart of the matter is this: is the traditionalist sinning by starting with the self instead of God? Van Til will occasionally admit that we can start with temporal facts (CVT: SCE, 120). If he would have consistently worked this into his system, we wouldn’t have much of a problem.

The next problem is that “Van Til confuses the sinner’s rejecting sound knowledge with not having knowledge” (Sproul et al, 216). If the sinner didn’t have any knowledge, then how could we use the TAG with him? He at least has some reason. Unfortunately, Van Til says there is “no logic or reality” between the two (CVT: Reformed Pastor, 199). Here CVT collapses the various kinds of knowledge into knowledge as loving and obeying God. Sproul and Gerstner deliver their first coup de grace: “We cannot even presuppose God except logically. In other words, even to think of the God who can validate logic, we must first think logically or rationally” (Sproul 220). Even more, “the presuppositionalist cannot even use the word God without assuming the law of noncontradiction” (224).

Here is the pastoral danger in rejecting the distinction between order of knowing and order of being: if we don’t have knowledge unless we presuppose God, then how can the sinner even get to the point where he can accept (or reject) the offer? “Van Til has cut off the bridge to knowledge” (228). This is the heart of the critique. The rest of the book is a variation on it.

I am pastorally willing to grant the presuppositionalist almost everything except this one point. I’ve seen in my life and the lives of others were presuppsitionalist young Turks have become either nihilists or sacerdotalists because they had no consistent knowledge.

In any case, and this isn’t that fatal a point to the system, Van Til doesn’t actually begin with God. He begins with the supposition that we should be able to predicate” (233). By his own standards (by what standard?) he is as autonomous as the traditionalist.

Before we end this review, I want to make a somewhat ironic and amusing point on today’s presuppositionalists regarding miracles and charismatic claims. Rushdoony says “to accept miracles on any other ground is in effect to deny their essential meaning” (Rushdoony, By What Standard, 17). The church, by contrast, has always thought of a miracle as corroborating the Gospel. Think about the standard cessationist criticism of miracles: they were used in the early church to certify the apostles’ message. I personally think that is a bad argument, but it gets the idea of miracle correct. Rushdoony, and by implication, presups in general, reverse the process. We presuppose miracles. A miracle is now an empty concept. In any case, you can’t be a cessationist on miracles and accept the presuppositionalist view on miracles.

Final point: the traditional Reformed view says that the Holy Spirit illuminates the unregenerate’s heart (Jonathan Edwards, A Divine and Supernatural Light). On Van Til’s view there is no knowledge to illuminate (CVT: Jerusalem and Athens, 243).

This book has some value in responding to Van Til. It is of limited use concerning later presuppositionalists (Bahnsen, Frame) and the academic ones of today (James Anderson).


This is an introductory response to Bahnsen’s review of Sproul’s Classical Apologetics. I plan a more detailed one later. I left my copy in another town. There are many weaknesses in CVT’s approach, but I have to have my copy in front of me in order to do a full analysis. Lord willing, I should do that in a few weeks.

Response to Bahnsen’s Review

(The original review is here:

Bahnsen: He criticizes their attack on secularism because, given their def. Of secularism as limiting reality to the temporal order, the secularist won’t agree with any proof they offer (p. 2).

That’s an odd criticism to make. Presumably, the authors, like every other apologist, Bahnsen included, will attempt to show that the secularist is wrong on that point.

Bahnsen: they cannot legitimately appeal to “natural theology” since on their terms natural revelation assumes special revelation, which assumes the existence of God (2).

The second part of that claim is true, though I don’t see why it is necessarily a problem. Sproul et al admit bias. I think Bahnsen’s target here is probably JW Montgomery.

Bahnsen: their use of Scripture (Ps. 19) doesn’t prove their case, for if natural theology is man’s reflection on natural revelation, then Scripture isn’t doing that.

This isn’t entirely true. Part of the problem is the tendency among presupps to reduce natural theology to nature itself. If that is what natural theology is, then we don’t see the psalmists doing that. On the other hand, natural theology as used by Sproul and the historic Christian tradition includes legitimate inferences from logical foundations, even at times drawing upon non-Christian wisdom. The most notorious point is Paul’s quoting a pantheist philosopher. Evidently, that philosopher had at least one legitimate reflection.

Bahnsen on noetic effects: He takes issue with apologetics as pre-evangelism, as the sinner won’t even agree to an assensus of faith to the propositions without the Holy Spirit (3).

This is simply false. Anyone who has done evangelism has been in situations where an unbeliever will say, “Yeah, that makes sense or I can agree with that but I don’t want to change my life.” Moreover, it is not true in Scripture that one needs the Holy Spirit for intellectual assent. Demons, for example, give intellectual assent to the most important proposition one can make about God.

Bahnsen: he attacks their use of causality (i.e., every effect has a cause) and points to Hume.

Aside from implying Hume’s criticism of causality, Bahnsen gives no reason to believe Sproul is wrong.

Bahnsen on cosmological argument: I’ll grant Bahnsen a point here. I don’t like how Sproul phrased it: if something exists now, then something exists necessarily. There are much better presentations of the cosmological argument and I never liked how Sproul phrased this one. Bahnsen attacks the claim that this cause has the power of being in itself as incoherent. That’s just standard Christian theism. Beings have energia. That’s almost true by definition.

Bahnsen: the authors give us no reason to believe that the world can’t be an infinite regress.

Response: yes they do. The explanation for a cause must be outside that cause itself. If this is true, and Bahnsen has given us no argument on why it isn’t, then the cause will be outside the temporal order.

That’s more or less Bahnsen’s review. He devotes the last page to rescuing Van Til from the charge of fideism. Even if that attempt is successful, it ignores all the real criticisms of Van Til. Consider: does the sinner have false knowledge of God? If he does, then why is he suppressing it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that he has knowledge of God and that is why he is suppressing it?

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