If there was one truth Dr. Cornelius Van Til pounded home, it was this: there are no "brute" facts, i.e., there are no uninterpreted facts. None. Fallen man is not a pure receptor of neutral data. How man interprets the "facts" is determined by his presuppositions, the biases and inclinations he brings to the knowledge enterprise.
Presuppositions may be likened to various things. Presuppositions can function like preferences or tastes, as when you approach a buffet. As you scan the buffet table, without even thinking, you reflexively eliminate that which is distasteful to you. You don't even register, say, the pickled carrots. You move on to consider with your eyes only that which your appetite tells you is in the running, and you choose from that. Your preferences and tastes have functioned as a filter, as a presupposition.
Presuppositions may also be compared to your teeth: potential nourishment, like potential information, must first pass through the grinding process to be made suitable for consumption.
Moving along the same track, presuppositions may be compared to your digestive system, performing nearly miraculous functions: detecting, sorting, cataloging all sight unseen, while you just go about your business.
It might even be said that a presupposition is best compared to your tuchas. Yes, your tooshie, like a presupposition, is always with you; it is behind and under everything you do. Yet you do your lifelong best to keep it hidden and protected. Moreover, you'll go so far as to make it utterly taboo to speak about in polite company! We all know they are there, but we neither expose them nor discuss them.
Well, we have to talk about them presuppositions, that is, not tooshies. For all propositions are offered in terms of one's governing presuppositions, and propositions accepted as true are accepted because they are in accord with the same. We will adjust heaven and earth to make something comport with that which we will not give up. All data will be interpreted by us in a way which serves and protects our fundamental, our core, beliefs, our non-negotiable faith.
Naturally, Dr. Van Til explained how this dynamic is very much operative in the sphere of religious conviction. Following God's own testimony in Romans 1, Van Til reminded his readers that unbelief in God was never for want of evidence. It was for want of faith. As the Scripture says, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
Men (and here Paul is referring to Gentiles, who until this time, had largely operated without benefit of God's special revelation -- "the oracles of God," entrusted to Israel) know God's testimony concerning Himself. They know it, it is clear. They just don't like it. Therefore, they suppress it. For to acknowledge God would cut away, at the knees, their claim to autonomy and lead to the acknowledgment that they owe God, He doesn't owe them.
"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened...They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator -- who is forever praised. Amen." The NIV well expresses man's contempt for God and His clear revelation, at Romans 1:28: "they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God..." They suppressed God's self-disclosure like passing by pickled carrots -- neither held any interest for them, being out of synch with their tastes, their presuppositions.
The idea taught in Romans 1 and emphasized in the writings of Dr. Van Til is that knowledge is not a one-dimensional, flat affair. It is inescapably an ethical endeavor. Man is never "neutral" in epistemology. Thus, it is proper to say of unredeemed man that he knows God, yet, because of his reflexive suppression of that knowledge (suppressed because it is contrary to his fundamental presupposition of autonomy), he at the same time does not know God. The unbeliever, therefore, is not morally neutral in his unbelief. Rather, he is culpably self-deceived.1
An illustration, often employed by Greg Bahnsen to illustrate how presuppositions govern interpretation, tells of the man who insisted he was dead. When he visited a psychiatrist, the doctor tried all he could to persuade him of the falsity of the man's proposition, to no avail. Finally he said, "Listen, I know how to prove this to you. Dead men don't bleed. Let's prick your finger and see if you bleed." The man readily agreed. As the blood trickled from the patient's finger, the doctor triumphantly said, "See! You are bleeding! Now what does that tell you?" "It tells me," answered the patient, "that dead men do bleed, after all."
Now this rather lengthy introduction has been included because presuppositionalism provides us with a way to explain the otherwise inexplicable, viz., the most disturbing, modern instance of historical revisionism: holocaust revisionism.
Holocaust revisionism claims, variously, that the Holocaust never happened, or that it has been greatly overstated, or that it wasn't peculiarly a war against the Jews, or that their "benevolent and gracious" Fuehrer knew nothing about whatever atrocities there may have been. These, if they happened, were perpetrated by a small handful of renegade German officials who did not act out the mind of their Leader. Uh-huh.
It has been asserted, with good warrant, that no crime in history has been as well documented as the Holocaust. The war against the Jews, from 1933 to 1945, is attested by film (both moving and still), thousands of documents, and innumerable eyewitness accounts, proffered by both perpetrators and victims.
This notwithstanding, the end of the war saw the almost immediate appearance of Holocaust deniers and revisionists, particularly in France. Only a few crackpots gave any ear to these. In the last 20 years or so, with a radical decline in the ability of Americans to exercise critical thinking, the pseudo-history of revisionists has captured an increasing number of obviously uncritical ears.2
When the Jewish scholar, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt,3 saw in the early 90s that Holocaust revision was becoming a veritable trend, she wrote a book: Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. One of the "scholars" exposed by her as incompetent was David Irving, a revisionist author who had built a reputation among some as a historian of merit. Mr. Irving decided to sue Dr. Lipstadt for libel. The charges were filed in 1996 in England (her book had been published there in 1994), because in England the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant.
The case ended in April 2000, with a crushing defeat for Mr. Irving. The British court found for the defendant, Dr. Lipstadt. It found that Mr. Irving was, in fact, a very lousy "historian." Aside from having no college degree at all let alone an advanced degree in history Mr. Irving was found by the court to have deliberately ignored facts which were contrary to what he wished to find, misrepresented facts which did not comport with his predetermined ends, and suppressed documents which suggested that his thesis was false. One could hardly ask for a starker restatement of Romans 1 applied to Holocaust denial: deliberately ignoring what is right in front of you, misrepresenting what you can't ignore, suppressing what you don't like. The mind of fallen man is facile at self-deception!
Well, of course, in a fallen world, what's a fact for one is a fiction for another. Holocaust revisionism is but one example of the epistemological morass which is overtaking Western Civilization in its apostasy. Giving up God means being given over to futility. As St. Paul said, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools."
It is not the purpose of this article to review the evidence proving the Holocaust, nor the preposterous propositions of the revisionists who deny or mitigate it. This can be done by a perusal of a few Internet sites, and by following the links contained therein.4 In the case of Mel Mermelstein which became well-known when Leonard Nimoy made it into the movie, Never Forget! California Superior Court Judge Thomas T. Johnson took "judicial notice" of the Holocaust, ruling that "The Holocaust is not reasonably subject to dispute. It is capable of immediate and accurate determination by resort to resources of reasonable indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact."
Rather, it is our concern merely to point out that we have in this instance yet another proof of the Van Tilian notion that knowledge is anything but a neutral operation. People believe, not necessarily what is true but, what they want to believe. The fact that not a single scholar of note can be found who endorses or supports their absurd theories is regarded as indisputable proof of their theories! In an epistemological universe governed, as ours is, by presuppositions, all "facts" are incorporated to align with our presuppositions.
Why didn't the defendants at Nuremberg, instead of claiming that they were "just following orders," plead that there was no Holocaust at all? Because, the revisionists say, they knew they were being railroaded and were trying just to "cop a plea." How do we account for the numbers tattooed on the arms of survivors? Mr. Irving says they did it themselves to make money off their allegations. What about the memories of survivors? Mere fantasies. What about the footage caught on film? Rare instances of atrocities performed by underlings, without the Fuehrer's knowledge or approval.
In 1988, one Fred Leuchter of Massachusetts, who passed himself as an engineer, was contracted to prepare a report supposedly proving that the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek could not have been "utilized or seriously considered to function as execution gas chambers." It was hoped that Mr. Leuchter's report would well serve the defense of neo-Nazis on trial at the time in Canada.5 As it turned out, Mr. Leuchter was discovered not to be an engineer at all, and his methodology was labeled by the court as "preposterous." He was later indicted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for his imposture in misrepresenting himself as an engineer. Leuchter was later arrested in Germany in 1993 for "inciting racial hatred," left Germany on bail, and now has a warrant outstanding for his arrest.
The point of all this is simple: when the facts do not support a person's "deeply and sincerely held presuppositions," then facts suffer torture, not being admitted as they are found, or not being admitted at all. The truth is that Holocaust deniers are motivated, not by a love of truth but by something operating on a different, a deeper level. There are generally one or more of three prime motives pushing deniers on: 1) A passionate desire to recover respectability for National Socialism (Nazism) as an acceptable political alternative. 2) Anti-Zionism. Operating from the conviction that Israel exists only because of post-Holocaust sympathies, and determined to annihilate Israel as a political entity, some see Holocaust revision as a necessary precondition to changing the hearts and minds of Israeli-sympathizers. 3) Plain, pure, vitriolic anti-Semitism.
These are the "tooshies" of Holocaust revisionists which need to be exposed. Without seeing what's "behind" their arguments, their efforts to revise history remain completely inexplicable. Once their tooshies are exposed, however, their true character shines like a moon.
1. Dr. Greg Bahnsen devoted much effort to justifying, from a philosophical perspective, the Van Tilian notion of self-deception. In fact, it was the subject of his Ph.D. work at USC.
2. My profound thanks to Prof. John Drobnicki, librarian of York College of the City University of New York, for his gracious and invaluable assistance. He is familiar with the literature of the deniers and the literature of the truth. According to Mr. Drobnicki, among the notorious revisionists are: Austin App, Ph.D. from Catholic Univ. of America (1929). He was active in several German-American groups. App is the author of The Six Million Swindle (1973) and A Straight Look at the Third Reich (1974). Aside from the revisionist writings that appeared immediately after the War (by Paul Rassinier, Maurice Bardeche, etc.), one of the first denier books that caused a stir was: Did Six Million Really Die? by Richard Harwood (1974). "Harwood" was the pseudonym of Richard Verrall, a prominent leader in British fascist/right-wing circles. The most famous work of denial is The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, by Arthur R. Butz (cf. title of this article), a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern. "To the untrained eye," says Prof. Drobnicki, "Butz's book gives the impression of scholarship, since it contains footnotes and he utilized many primary documents. Many of the deniers who came after him base their work on Butz and quote heavily from him." It has been said that Mr. Butz does not teach his revisionist theories in the classroom, lest his tenure be threatened.
3. M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis University, Dr. Lipstadt taught at UCLA and is currently Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
4. Start with http://www.nizkor.org, and http://www.holocaust-history.org. See also http://www.skeptic.com/02.4.miele-holocaust.html, http://www.pafb.af.mil./deomi/research/holocst.htm and http://188.8.131.52/resource/revision.htm. There is, not surprisingly, a great deal of revisionist propaganda on the web. Links from the sites mentioned above will lead you to some.
5. I met my first revisionist in Canada in 1989 while on a speaking tour of many cities in Alberta. I was puzzled when his wife had warned me of her husband's "peculiar views," and that I should not take great offense. "What could she be talking about?" I wondered. I soon found out. It was not long afterward that I discovered him to be one of many revisionists who seem to gravitate toward or grow in western North America.
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.