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Ligonier Apologetics: A Case of Cognitive Dissonance

Editor’s Introduction: We were saddened to hear of the untimely passing of Joseph Braswell on March 22, 1999. Joseph was one of the leading Reformed thinkers of our generation, and his grasp of Van Til’s epistemology and apologetics was profound. We had several articles in our files that he had submitted before his death. Below is one of them.

  • Joseph P. Braswell
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Editor’s Introduction: We were saddened to hear of the untimely passing of Joseph Braswell on March 22, 1999. Joseph was one of the leading Reformed thinkers of our generation, and his grasp of Van Til’s epistemology and apologetics was profound. We had several articles in our files that he had submitted before his death. Below is one of them.

The Ligonier school of classical, evidentialist apologetics1 is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it (rather surprisingly) concedes so much to Van Tilian presuppositionalism that, upon hearing or reading what is granted at the outset, one may wonder precisely what the controversy is between these two schools of apologetics. On the other hand, it proceeds to erect an epistemology wholly at odds with what it has previously conceded, adopting a form of empiricist foundationalism as the justification for its rejection of the alleged fideism in Van Tilianism and its advocacy for the rational-evidentialist approach to the epistemic justification of religious truth-claims. We shall now examine these two disparate hallmarks of Ligonier thought in greater detail.

Its Presuppositionalism
The Ligonier apologists explicitly state at the outset that, ultimately, experience is intelligible only because the God of the Bible exists and because humanity and the cosmos are what Scripture asserts them to be. Facts and logic depend upon God; without God’s existence, there could be no argument, no rationality, no knowledge of anything whatsoever. Unbelievers can only know truth because they possess actual knowledge of God that they are suppressing, because — despite their ethico-religiously motivated state of denial and repression (self-deception) — they do, in fact, believe in God and thus presuppose the God of Christian Theism in all their truth-yielding knowing-activity. Moreover, though Ligonier apologetics, in its concern to reconstruct natural theology, tends to stress the concept of mediate natural revelation, the Ligonier apologists concede that there is also immediate revelation. In speaking of the actual possession of a true knowledge of God and of the dependence of all knowledge upon the theistic/creationist ontology as our actual epistemic situation (the truth of Christian Theistic worldview as the transcendental condition for the possibility of any knowledge, the necessary context of all knowing), the Ligonier apologists sound like Van Tilians.

Its Evidentialism
Unfortunately, the Ligonier group does not stop here. They accept a foundationalist epistemology based upon a positivistic empiricism, even though they have already conceded that what is given to the senses in empirical knowledge depends for its intelligibility upon the transcendental presupposition of God. For them, empirical knowledge is primary; theological knowledge is inferential, to be justified by evidence provided by established empirical facts that both believer and unbeliever accept in common. Here the shift is to the idea of mediate revelation to the virtual exclusion of immediate revelation. The truth of theological propositions is a conclusion to be derived from the truth of certain empirical propositions; the existence of God — the truth of the Christian Theistic worldview — is justified by drawing valid inferences from empirical evidence.

What are we to make of this odd state of affairs among the Ligonier group? If they are quite serious in asserting that their appeal to facts and logic presupposes a Christian Theistic worldview, that they are actually self-consciously presupposing certain elements of the Christian Theistic ontology in their presentation of the evidence, then, at bottom, they are guilty of the same circular reasoning and "fideism" for which they criticize Van Til. Their reasoning is circular and therefore, by their own standards, a case of fallacious question-begging. They argue in a circular fashion to the extent that, true to their concessions to the transcendental underpinnings of their rational-evidentialist arguments that are provided by a distinctively Christian Theistic metaphysic, they do not truly consider the empirical phenomena as simply given and intelligible-as-such, requiring no further (i.e., metaphysical) explanation and thus metaphysically neutral, value-free, and nontheory-laden. Do they, or do they not, see the evidentiary value of the facts as basic and self-evident, as self-justifying? They seem to want it both ways.

Common Ground
Of course, once the Ligonier apologists actually get going in their apologetic presentation, despite all the preliminary concessions that appear so Van Tilian, they sound as though they are, after all, treating the facts as self-evident and basic, as self-explanatory; they sound very much like antimetaphysical positivists. Were they only treating these facts as contextually basic (i.e., relatively so within finite contexts of argument and objection), there would be no quarrel between them and a Van Tilian. The Van Tilian agrees that there is common-ground between believers and unbelievers: the metaphysical common ground provided by the actual epistemic situation in which all operate and by which all come to know whatever truth they do obtain. It is a common epistemic situation that is grounded in the ontological fact — the real state of affairs — that all men inhabit and share God’s world and must operate within this given world of theistic facts and laws. In light of this common ground, the Van Tilian agrees that we can begin within the finite context of discussion that is constituted by the fact that the unbeliever, despite his epistemological presuppositions, will assent to the validity of the law of causality, the law of noncontradiction, etc. and accept these as true premises — common-ground assumptions — from which we can proceed to argue.2 We can rationally argue with the unbeliever precisely because he is the image of God and, by virtue of his living in God’s world, must possess moments of truth, knowledge that corresponds to what is (i.e., the way God’s world is). The image of God is the point of contact; we have all facts in common with the unbeliever metaphysically. Accordingly, empirical evidence does impress him, as do sound arguments, within a context in which he possesses moments of truth altogether incompatible to his antitheistic presupposition of autonomy, moments of truth that he possesses precisely because he at bottom believes in God and knows the world to be what Scripture says it is, rather than (as he claims in his self-deception) the product of impersonal chance. There is, in other words, by virtue of common grace and the inconsistency — the epistemological dualism or tension — common grace produces in the unbeliever a limited context in which we — believer and unbeliever — can formally agree in practice on certain principles; otherwise there could be no understanding or communication, no possibility of the unbeliever’s following of our argument at all. The apologist can thus begin where the unbeliever is at (appealing to his acceptance of facts and logic), provided that the apologist will, at some point, place the finite context that he may have used as a "starting point" within the absolute and ultimate context of the plan of God. The Ligonier strategy of dealing with the unbeliever is quite consonant with a Van Tilian approach, provided that we, at some point, confront the unbeliever with his inconsistency, challenging his use of facts and logic (which are, after all, theistic facts and logic) and pointing out to him that this area of formal agreement does not follow from his worldview and cannot be ultimately justified in terms of his antitheistic presuppositions. At some point (though there are no hard and fast rules stipulating precisely when), we must examine presuppositions, engaging in a transcendental argument concerning the necessary conditions that make intelligible experience and knowledge possible and critiquing, by means of the consequences that logically follow from them, those false presuppositions that a transcendental analysis lays bare for criticism.

Is this stance on the use of relative contexts as initial points of encounter all that the Ligonier apologists intend? Their appeal to the distinction between proximate and ultimate starting points (a Van Tilian distinction!) would seem to indicate that this uncontroversial position is all that they have in mind, that they merely wish to treat certain facts and principles as contextually basic, contextually determined. If, however, they merely intend to assert that the basic beliefs with which they start are contextually (relatively) basic, they again would be guilty of the circular reasoning that they think is fallacious, and they are at pains to avoid the question-begging that they mistakenly ascribe to any and all circularity.

This distress over circularity is clearly the result of subscribing to a foundationalist view of linear inference (straight-line inferences from a foundation of logically primitive, basic beliefs), for contextualists (in common with coherentists) believe that philosophical arguments are always ultimately circular, though in a nonquestion-begging way. Moreover, as much as we would like to believe that they after all agree with Van Til, they really do buy into foundationalism by virtue of their insistence that we must argue from ostensibly common-property (neutral) facts if we are to be rational and not fideists. Their argument for the law of noncontradiction (which is really the argument of Aristotle — a foundationalist) also demonstrates that they are foundationalists. In common with foundationalists, they seem to believe that the law is a basic belief, a logically primitive axiom (and note that their argument makes it self-justifying: it is justified whether one believes in God or not, and it leaves no room for asserting that all argument depends upon God).

Foundationalism’s Flaw
It is safe to conclude then that the Ligonier apologists are epistemological foundationalists, appealing to facts and logic as basic beliefs. Now, the apologist who is a foundationalist must take one of two positions. First, he may hold that belief in God’s existence is a basic belief. However, if he adopts this position, then how can he argue for God’s existence, inferring God from other basic beliefs (as per the notion of mediate revelation)? A basic belief cannot be derived from other basic beliefs. The only possible alternative to such an untenable position for the foundationalist is, quite obviously, for him to deny that belief in God is a basic belief. This position, however, denies what the Ligonier apologists initially conceded: that there is immediate natural revelation. If he maintains that belief in God is basic, he must either hold that this is a basic belief alongside (coordinate with) other basic beliefs (e.g., beliefs due to direct observation — immediate experience) or else he must concede that our belief in the reliability of logic and first-hand experience is dependent upon — inferred from — the basic belief in God (as Descartes held). In the latter case, empirical beliefs are not truly basic; in the former case, he has made those beliefs that are also basic alongside belief in God independent of God — autonomous, self-explanatory beliefs that require no justification within a theistic context (again, denying the Ligonier apologists’ concessions to presuppositionalism).

The problem with foundationalism is that it is simply unworkable in the formulation of a theory of knowledge. Its only defense presupposes unidirectional linear inference and then argues the impossibility of an infinite regress. The chain of inferences, reasoned back from conclusions to their premises, must stop at some point or else epistemic justification would be impossible and total skepticism — the reductio ad absurdum of any epistemological proposal — would result. However, we cannot justify all our allegedly inferential knowledge from any reasonably proposed set of ostensibly basic beliefs (bearing in mind that any belief that is to qualify as a basic belief must be self-justifying — indubitable).

Van Til’s Contexualism
Van Til, however, does not offer us a different variety of foundationalism. Instead, he offers us a form of contextualist epistemology that situates us in the City of God as the ultimate context. Whereas foundationalism is at bottom impersonalistic, contextualism is personalistic in its emphasis upon the role of a sociology of knowledge and what has been called the social construction of reality: the socially determined conventions of rationally interpreting our experience (i.e., rationalizing it, whether in an original or analogical sense) that is involved in the idea of a correspondence of judgments among a community sharing a worldview or metanarrative tradition — a common symbolic universe of discourse or language-game that constitutes (again, whether in an original or analogical sense) a field of meaningful, intelligible experience. Non-Christian contextualism, however, places this sociology of knowledge against the ultimate context of cosmic impersonalism (a backdrop of meaningless, brute fact), making man the ultimate personal reference-point. It must deal with the fact of diversity within the City of Man (competing groups, different traditions — a multiculturalist cultural relativism) that inevitably causes it to lapse into historicism and absolute relativism. Situation within the City of God (with knowledge based upon revelation) alone satisfies the conditions of Augustine’s theistic argument from the idea of truth (in his On Free Will): (1) Truth must transcend the human situation (i.e., against the Academicians qua conventionalists, man cannot be the final reference-point), and (2) truth requires someone — a person — to "opine" it and assert it (against the Platonists, truth is a property of judgments and requires an intelligence). Augustine, by this transcendental argument, shows that Christian Theism, using the Christian ideas of transcendence and immanence, brings together what non-Christian philosophy could not: absoluteness and relativity. Truth transcends finite human societies and history, and is universal and cosmic, because creation itself — being the product of the eternal, infinite, self-existent Creator-God who is exhaustively personal and Absolute Personality— is, in its covenantally constituted character, encompassed in the metanarrative that is the Word of God (by which all things were made and all things consist), and the Word of God (His covenant revelation) is the tradition — the story — of the City of God, providing it with its worldview, its transcendently grounded reading of the world. Only such a distinctively Christian Theistic version of contextualist epistemology grounds knowledge in the thoroughly personalistic context of the communion of the City of God with the economic Trinity within the covenantal context and the general-revelatory situation of the ontologically "logocentric," Word-constituted world this God has created, a theistic-factual world that is to be interpreted through the "glasses" of the special revelation (Scripture) He has given, as covenant-correlate to general revelation, to the City of God.


1. This refers to the apologetic position set forth in R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, 1984).

2. The form of argument would then proceed along the following lines. The apologist would assert that there is no alternative to accepting facts and using logic, to constructing sound arguments based upon evidence; in this manner if we are to make any sense whatsoever of the world, though this way of interpreting and concluding itself makes sense only upon the presupposition of the Christian Theistic metaphysic. The initial step may simply be based upon the TINA argument as to why we must employ the philosophy of fact and the philosophy of logic that we are employing, leaving aside, for the moment, the ontological foundations. That is, we need only elicit the unbeliever’s agreement to that which we know to be a distinctively Christian view of fact and logic, asking him to stand with us on our ground as the only alternative to absolute skepticism, pointing out from his practice that he normally thinks and acts in this manner anyway as he engages in living in the world. He generally accepts the normativity of these canons of discovery. At some point, however, we must bring up the matter of ontological grounding (how only Christian Theism justifies this way of using facts and constructing logical arguments) and demonstrate that his own presuppositions fail to account for such appeal to fact and logic.

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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