How to Think Like a Christian (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.

In preparation for this series, I made a list of all the CDs in my Big Box. If you read the introductory post, you already know that there were around 40 of these, so yes, it was a little overwhelming at first! So many lectures, so little time!

Or so I thought. As it turned out, the longer I looked at the list, a pattern began to emerge. Some titles were clearly about Vision Forum’s core doctrines; some were about important practices derived from said doctrines. Others “zoomed in” on those practices, examining them in more detail. And still others seemed almost unimportant, at best only peripherally related to the core doctrines or not related at all.

These four categories turned out to be a godsend. I quickly sorted the titles and decided I would chart my course through the Big Box from the center outward – begin by analyzing the core doctrines themselves; move on to looking at the broad outlines of the practices they foster; examine some more specific implications of those practices; and end by looking at the peripheral matters, which add detail to the picture but probably won’t tell us much on their own about Vision Forum’s distinctive beliefs. Thus, we’ll begin The Big Box with the “first tier” titles – those that deal with the central, foundational doctrines Vision Forum promotes.

As I looked at the “first tier” CDs, one jumped out at me as especially important – How to Think Like a Christian. What could be more foundational than Vision Forum’s definition of a Christian? If we have this definition wrong, we will misunderstand everything from here on out. This really is the “foundation of the foundation”!

And so, without further ado, let’s begin our journey through the jungles of the Big Box. Grab your machete, and keep a sharp eye – you never know what might be lurking in the bushes.

The face of empiricism.

The face of empiricism.

The theme of How to Think Like a Christian (speaker Doug Phillips) turns out to be “the war of the worldviews.” As you might expect, this is a pun on H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. Phillips derives his metaphor from the infamous 1938 radio dramatization of the novel (see Wikipedia article here), which caused widespread panic when listeners believed that “little green Martians” were actually invading Earth. There are no “little green Martians,” Phillips says, but there are “little green Martian philosophies” which, just like Wells’ Martians, are invading your home and your church.

After quoting Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), Phillips expands upon this “war of the worldviews” theme:

Christianity is supremely rational. Christianity is a belief system based on faith, but it is a faith which is supremely rational. … Every other worldview, every other thought system, is also based on faith, but they are inherently irrational. I’m gonna make that case during this talk, that if you are a Christian, and you believe even when you don’t have empirical evidence, and you believe because the Bible says it, that is rational, but if you are a person who only believes like Thomas, when you put your finger through the holes of the hand or when you have empirical evidence, you are a humanist.

It is easy to deduce from the above that Phillips believes an empiricist, and for that matter any non-Christian, is inherently “irrational” in their thinking.

Though many may not realize it, Phillips uses extremely significant language in the above quote. The terminology of Christianity being the only “rational” religion is drawn from Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), a Dutch Calvinist theologian widely known as the father of presuppositional apologetics. For those unfamiliar with this term, here is a handy summary from Steven Cowan’s book Five Views on Apologetics (I recommend reading his descriptions here of the other four views to fully understand what makes presuppositionalism unique):

Due to the noetic [of or relating to mental activity or the intellect] effects of sin, presuppositionalists usually hold that there is not enough common ground between believers and unbelievers that would allow followers of the prior three methods [classical, evidential and cumulative case apologetics] to accomplish their goals. The apologist must simply presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics. Here the Christian revelation in the Scriptures is the framework through which all experience is interpreted and all truth is known. Various evidences and arguments can be advanced for the truth of Christianity, but these at least implicitly presuppose premises that can be true only if Christianity is true. Presuppositionalists attempt, then, to argue transcendentally. That is, they argue that all meaning and thought – indeed, every fact – logically presupposes the God of the Scriptures.

Notice especially the last sentence. If all meaning, thought and facts logically require the Christian God to make sense, then anyone who does not believe in the Christian God, according to presuppositionalists, cannot by definition think rationally as they must abandon logic and reason to accept their worldview. Van Til put it more succinctly:

The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove if one is not a Christian-theist [he means a regenerate believer] he knows nothing whatsoever as he ought to know about anything … On the contrary, the Christian-theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God.[1]

Calling non-Christians “irrational” is not the only way Phillips reveals his sympathies with Van Til. Throughout the lecture, he also emphasizes that there are no “zones of neutrality” between Christians and unbelievers. From D. R. Trethewie:

Van Til is critical also of the idea of common ground implicit in the traditional apologetic. “On this point I may say that if the idea of neutral territory (common to Christians and unbelievers) does fairly represent the traditional view, then I can only disagree with it.” Common Grace and the Gospel, page 155. What he castigates is, “The Aquinas-Butler type of argument (which) assumed that there is an area of fact on the interpretation of which Christians and non-Christians agree.” Introduction to Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, page 20, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970.

Van Til suggests, as noted above, that believers and unbelievers have the facts in common, but the perspective of unbelievers so distorts the facts, that their view of them is so substantially different from that of Christians that there can be no agreement.[2]

It follows from this perspective that, since Christians and non-Christians can never agree on anything, there must be a distinctly Christian position on each and every subject. After all, if there is not, then we run the risk of agreeing with an unbeliever, which is, according to Van Til, impossible unless we as Christians compromise our presuppositional integrity.

You may be thinking at this point that Van Til is overstating his case. I’m sure we can all think of areas in which we as Christians agree with our non-Christian friends, and not only on inconsequential matters such as our preferred brand of cheese puffs. Most people, for instance, agree that murder and child molestation are heinous crimes. We can also think of substantial areas of agreement between Christianity and certain other religions – for instance, the shared belief in one God between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, though Christians, Jews and Muslims would disagree on the nature of that deity. This would seem to contradict Van Til’s assertion that the search for common ground will inevitably end in failure. From Trethewie:

…reason is therefore capable of apprehending and acknowledging the first truths of religion, i.e. that God exists and that the Bible is the Word of God. Also that the unconverted are quite capable of making valid judgments concerning natural, moral and political questions. They affirm also that unbelievers, although dead to saving faith, are able to acknowledge much gospel truth, e.g. that Jesus is the Messiah. …

Now we would say that not all unbelievers deny the existence and work of God. Some do in word, and all do so, more or less, in a practical way, but many would defend the truth of His existence and work.

The apostle James teaches this clearly, ‘Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.’ James 2:19. To the unregenerate king, Agrippa, Paul says, ‘Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.’ Acts 26:27. Paul’s bold remark includes the affirmation of their common agreement in this belief. Paul also, in a spirit of gracious acknowledgement, intrinsic to the glorious gospel of peace, and quite contrary to the aggressive unfriendliness of Kuyperianism [Van Til’s belief system] to the lost, over whom Christ would rather weep, affirmed common ground with the Greeks in Athens, when he said, ‘As certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’ Acts 17:28. .. Jesus’ gracious and encouraging remark to a scribe, not yet a Christian, clearly acknowledges this man’s reasoning ability, ‘And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said to him, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.”‘ Mark 12:34. The context shows Jesus’ agreement with this as yet unregenerate scribe in their common affirmation of the two great commandments.[2]

Surely if common ground can be found between Christians and demons – belief in one God – then our non-Christian neighbors should be no problem!

The above should make us very leery of accepting Phillips’ statements about neutrality and unbelievers’ supposed “irrationality.” Unfortunately these ideas are central to Phillips’ entire view of Christianity. One of his “key Christian worldview foundations,” outlined near the end of the lecture, is that there are no “zones of neutrality” in life, due to Jesus’ lordship over all things. Another is that the Bible is sufficient to address all possible questions we might have about how to conduct our lives:

God has given us everything we need in the Scripture by way of precept (direct command) or pattern (normative examples) or principle (broad conclusions drawn from patterns or precepts)…such that we can wisely live and choose our life…

In another place Phillips urges his listeners to try “the desert island challenge,” by which he means to imagine themselves trapped on a desert island with nothing but a Bible and see if they can still justify their beliefs using only that standard. He also says several times that there is no subject on which the Bible is silent, most notably near the beginning of the lecture:

…every possible subject, including your educational methodology, all you need to go to is the Bible to find the principles, the precepts and the patterns whereby you can build your entire world and life view, and to challenge you that to the extent you are not building your worldview on the Scripture, you are a humanist.

We can conclude from the above quote that Phillips does not believe in the silence of Scripture. This is confirmed by even a brief perusal of Vision Forum’s website, which reveals that Phillips and his colleagues think the Bible talks about dating, schooling, children’s toys, and even the food on our dinner tables. Most Christians outside of Phillips’ influence believe these are what Paul calls “doubtful things,” issues on which Scripture gives no clear answer or no answer at all (see Romans 14:1-13). Paul urges charity toward Christians who come to different conclusions than ourselves on these matters, yet Phillips, in this very lecture, calls those who disagree with him “humanists,” “Gnostics,” “unbiblical” and their arguments “folly.”

Perhaps you’re wondering by now how Phillips and his associates support the idea that the Bible is never silent on a given issue. Remember Phillips said above that God teaches us in the Bible through precepts, patterns and principles – precepts defined as “direct commands,” patterns as “normative examples,” and principles as “broad conclusions drawn from patterns or precepts.”

Let’s use the example of children’s toys to explore this issue. Anyone even remotely familiar with Vision Forum knows that they sell heavily gendered “pink and blue” toys, but if you’re like most Christians, you’re probably having trouble remembering the specific Biblical injunction against girls playing with “boy’s toys.” This is probably because there isn’t one – Vision Forum derives their stance on this matter from broader theological theories about gender roles and the role of women in home, church and society. And this is exactly why Phillips can claim that the Bible speaks, often in detail, to every possible problem. If he frames the issue broadly enough, he can make it apply to just about anything; and if you disagree with him about how the broader question should be specifically applied, you are denying “unchanging Biblical principles” and are thus “thinking like a humanist.”

Phillips’ stance on the silence of Scripture and his adherence to the theories of Van Til are only two of his “key Christian worldview foundations,” and the most troublesome. The others are much more mainstream but still deserve brief comment.

First, Phillips’ statements about the sovereignty and immutability of God are heavily Calvinistic. God, he says, is sovereign over our diet, our marriages, and our math textbooks. He planned and still controls every last microscopic detail of history and can elect to salvation whomever He pleases. Now there’s nothing wrong with Phillips being a Calvinist, but the fact that he tries to present Calvinism as the only acceptable Christian opinion is problematic, as it renders Arminians, Lutherans and any other non-Calvinists inherently un-Christian.

Second, Phillips makes some passing references to the Mosaic civil law when he talks about the Bible being relevant to today’s society. It is well-documented that Phillips is a Christian Reconstructionist (thus his fondness for the Mosaic civil law), but unfortunately I don’t have time in this review to fully address this point. For now, I will only point you to Frederick Clarkson’s work on the subject until a more opportune time.

So, to wrap up, let’s review what we’ve learned from How to Think Like a Christian:

1. By his own admission, and based on his statements about the “irrationality” of unbelievers and the impossibility of finding common ground between believers and unbelievers, Doug Phillips is a disciple of Cornelius Van Til. This is an important point, as the father of Christian Reconstructionism, R. J. Rushdoony, was also a great admirer of Van Til and Phillips is a Reconstructionist.

2. Phillips incorporates Van Til’s theories into his basic definition of Christianity. Thus, I can only conclude that if you do not accept these theories, you are, in Doug’s view, “sub-Christian” at best.

3. Phillips does not believe in the silence of Scripture. This will be an important point to remember as we examine the practices he derives from his Biblical “principles” (such as courtship, homeschooling, etc.).

4. Phillips is a hardline Calvinist and implies heavily that Calvinism is the only “Biblical” view (as opposed to Arminianism, etc.).

Looks like we’ve survived our first foray into the Big Box! But stay tuned, folks…this is just the beginning.

26 comments on “How to Think Like a Christian (TBB)

  1. lilyrosemary says:

    So the definition of “rational” is “agrees with Doug Phillips’ biblical exegesis” and the definition of “irrational” is “disagrees with Doug Phillips’ biblical exegesis”? I never knew that! Should we let Merriam-Webster know so they can update their dictionaries?

    In all seriousness, it is difficult for me to understand making the leap from believing that the Bible is the revealed Word of God to behaving as though there is a verse that explicitly says: “This book and only this book should be your all-sufficient guide for life, and all your questions and dilemmas shall be resolved when you search within its pages. To ever in any circumstance use common sense, other books, life experience, your conscience, or your heart angers God and proves that you’re a humanist.” Of course the Bible makes no such claim, not even implicitly! So it seems to me that this idea of building your entire worldview on Scripture is inconsistent at its very core. If the Bible doesn’t seem to have a sense of itself as a complete guide to all of life, then by what authority does Doug Phillips even interpret the Bible this way?

    Thanks for writing this, Hester! I’m looking forward to reading more of what you have to say.

  2. Jenny says:

    Great post, Hester. Phillips’ influence began in a subculture of the Christian homeschooling community, but it’s stealthily spreading into the Christian mainstream through heavily marketed movies and related materials. Thanks for shining a light on it.

  3. FG says:

    Interesting critique. I’ve never assessed The Big Box series, but I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what you presented.

    You mentioned Phillips’ observation regarding empiricism, insofar as he claims it is inherently irrational. As it turns out, he’s correct. You see, the person who affirms an empiricist epistemology cannot claim to know the veracity of empiricism on empirical grounds, hence, it is logically self-refuting. In other words, empiricism fails to satisfy its own conditions for truth, which is why it qualifies as irrational. Of course, not all non-Christians subscribe to an empiricist epistemology, but for those who do, they’re predicating knowledge on the absurd.

    I do think some of the claims of Van Til (assuming his views were accurately represented in the critique) are extreme, insofar as it seems obvious that both believers and unbelievers can agree on some things. I’ve listened to Bahnsen lecture on presuppositionalism (though I do not share his Calvinist theology), and he seems to represent Van Til’s views a bit differently. He doesn’t say that the unbeliever cannot, for example, have true knowledge of moral laws (as per your example regarding child molestation and murder). Rather, he states that the unbeliever cannot ground (or give an account of) those laws in order to make them intelligible within a non-Biblical worldview. In other words, it’s not that the believer and unbeliever cannot have common ground in what they believe or verbally affirm. Rather, they do not share common ground in what their respective worldview’s actually presuppose, which is a different matter entirely (and I’m only referring to philosophical categories, not the virtues of cheese puffs or any such thing). The atheist can obviously claim that murder is wrong. But he cannot give any objective ground upon which to predicate a proscription to murder.

    Regarding things like the Bible setting standards for children’s toys, I agree with your assessment. Though the Bible obviously has clear things to say about gender roles, anyone who attempts to tell others that the BIble forbids blue toys for girls or some such thing is clearly treading dangerous ground. That’s the stuff of which cults are made. Of course, as I already noted, I’m not a Calvinist, so I don’t share the Calvinist’s hyper view of divine sovereignty (which eliminates free will and isn’t in any way Biblical).

  4. Well done, Hester! Your new blog is going in to my Google Reader!

  5. Hester says:

    @ FG:

    Everything I’ve read has said similar things about Van Til’s views so, to my knowledge, I have represented them correctly. I’ve never listened to Bahnsen so I can’t speak for what he did with Van Til. Clearly we do all bring certain assumptions (“presuppositions”) to the table, which can and do complicate discussion. Maybe that’s all presuppositionalism is trying to say, in its own way, but it seems clear to me that, like you said, Van Til went way too far. (I also wonder why presuppositionalism seems so prone to producing Christian Reconstructionists, which makes me suspicious of it.) And to incorporate Van Til’s views into the basic definition of a Christian, as Doug has done, is way out of line as it’s clear that many sincere Christians disagree strongly with him.

    Since I’m a Christian, I agree that strict empiricism and atheist justifications for morality are logically inconsistent. So yes, in that sense I suppose you could call them “irrational” (though I tend to prefer “illogical” because, in my experience, calling someone “irrational” tends to produce accusations that you called them crazy, which doesn’t help). But if “rational” means “logically consistent,” I still think Doug went too far to claim that Christianity is the only consistent worldview.

    Per the gender roles thing, my views on that will become clear later on in the series so I won’t get into that here.

    • FG says:

      I tend to think that everyone utilizes presuppositional apologetics in some respect, even if they don’t use it in the same way Reformed apologists approach it. Maybe most people simply don’t call it “presuppositionalism” because it seems inextricably tied to the Van Til camp, and many want to avoid any connection to him. Philosophically speaking, however, we recognize that certain propositions logically presuppose other things, such that we can assess the rationality of a view which affirms one thing while denying the ground upon which the affirmation rests.

      I agree that it’s not helpful to accuse someone of being irrational, however, that’s a matter of how one relates to another. However, the relationship aspect notwithstanding, there’s little difference between being illogical and being irrational. Still, I would agree that the apologist should focus his critique on his opponent’s ideas and avoid personal attacks.

      Finally, I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that Christianity (or minimally, a “Biblical” worldview) is, ultimately, the only rational worldview. I am not suggesting that the unbeliever cannot be rational in many respects. Obviously the unbeliever can know and affirm many rational truths and behave rationally much of the time. What I am suggesting is that, in terms of metaphysics and the big philosophical questions, a non-Bilical worldview will ultimately be contradictory and irrational when pressed.

      • Hester says:

        “I tend to think that everyone utilizes presuppositional apologetics in some respect, even if they don’t use it in the same way Reformed apologists approach it. Maybe most people simply don’t call it ‘presuppositionalism’ because it seems inextricably tied to the Van Til camp, and many want to avoid any connection to him.”

        I think you are right. Like I said in my original reply, to deny that we all bring our own assumptions to the table would just be silly. : ) Personally, I know its tight connections to Van Til, Rushdoony, etc. certainly make me nervous and would dissuade me from using the term. Plus the way it seems to be widely used on the ground is essentially as a club to beat over the heads of non-Christians (“My presuppositions are better than yours!”).

        “What I am suggesting is that, in terms of metaphysics and the big philosophical questions, a non-Bilical worldview will ultimately be contradictory and irrational when pressed.”

        This could be true, though I think some require a good deal more pressing than others. It’s one thing, however, to say the above and quite another to take it in the direction of Van Til and Doug Phillips (which I you seem to recognize so I don’t mean to say that you have done this). A matter of degree and extent, perhaps?

  6. Hester says:

    @ lilyrosemary:

    More like rationality = “agreeing with Van Til’s exegesis.” But since Doug and Van Til seem to think the same way, maybe you’re right. : )

    Per the Bible-as-all-sufficient-encyclopedia idea, in my experience people get it from 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:3. Which I agree is a bit of a stretch.

  7. Kathi says:

    This curriculum has lost me with just one CD! We have a great homeschool bookstore that sells all of Vision Forum’s material. So glad I never looked into it.

  8. Jeff S says:

    Hester, very impressive post- I look forward to reading more (you should get that “about” page going, thought!). Also, big thanks for including ACFJ in your blogroll. 🙂 Oh, and I appreciate your restraint in going after us Calvinists :p

    As to this post yourself, this kind if thing is sadly an uphill battle in evangelical Christiantiy. It seems that the classical position of common grace has largely been discounted by people who must insit the scripture is the only real source of knowledge. RC Sproul (sr- as jr is connected directly to VF) gets a lot of respect from me for arguing for common grace against the current tide who seem to think it diminishes the scripture to believe that there is value to knowledge found elsewhere (even though most will go to a doctor when sick to gain from his extra-biblical knowledge).

    In the area of domestic violence this is sadly demonstrated so well- work by non Christians is ignored, or even demonized, in favor of sketchy conclusions supposedly drawn from scripture. So Lundy Bancroft is ignored while John Piper is appealed to. Which of these two men has the credentials to talk about abusive men?

    Having looked at VF’s doctrines before, they go through a lot of work to take historical narrative as prescriptive, arriving at some very harmful conclusions. Of course I believe that any secular view must be past by the authority of scripture, but if scripture is silent, we do the world a disservice by ignorning the wisdom of those who have studied place where scripture is silent.

    Finally, humility should tell us that principles derived from scripture should be dealt with carefully- just because one man or even a denomination draws a certain conclusion doesn’t make it right. The more tenuous the inference, the more careful we have to be. Those who draw strong conclusions about how to organize and run families and are strict about their views are almost always overstating because scripture is primarily concerned with the salvific narrative of Jesus Christ, not how we run our families. I don’t think scripture is silent on the family, but it certainly isn’t the focus (if it was, I think we’d have been given a Savior and Chief Apostle who were married with children)

    Looking forward to your next post.

    • Hester says:

      “I appreciate your restraint in going after us Calvinists”

      I’m hardly anti-Calvinist…Neo-Calvinist is another matter. : )

      I think it’s necessary for people to understand that they really have no business listening to a word of Doug’s theology if they are non-Reformed. His entire system assumes a form of covenant theology and he uses his particular view of the sovereignty of God to justify his stance on the silence of Scripture. (He seems to ascribe to the “God micromanages every atom” kind of view – perhaps you can elaborate on whether this is hyper-Calvinist because I seem to recall talking to Calvinists whose view of sovereignty was looser than this.) It cracks me up that I know so many Arminian Dispensationalists who love Vision Forum.

      • Jeff S says:

        Well I don’t think anyone should listen to VisionForum teaching, reformed or otherwise.

        As far as believing in God micromanaging every atom, I really have no idea where that falls. I think that’s more of a philosophical position that a scriptural one. That is, I think people who talk about that are taking the position from their philosophical views rather than a direct inference from scripture- which I think is completely fine, but we have to be careful not to overstate our philosophical conclusions.

        To say that God works all things to good for Christians or that he works to good what others mean for evil is the direct teaching of scripture. To say we understand his control over every atom is another story altogether.

        Personally, I try not to go too far down those lines of thought because I really am no philosopher. I know just enough to realize there are a lot of challenging ideas out there and I simply don’t have the time to understand it all.

        Which brings me around to the whole discussion of rationality. I personally would say it is impossible for a finite being to be completely rational. We simply will never have all the facts, so at some point we have to do the best we can with the information we have. If we wait for full understanding, then we will end up completely unable to move because we are just too limited. I think that’s an important thing- we must be comfortable with our limitations.

        That being said, I do agree that any system that isn’t true ultimately will end up contradicting itself at some point- in the end, a false system won’t work. So in this sense you could say that when everything is illuminated and everything is known, Christiantiy (and, in fact a certain “flavor” of it) will be the only rational choice. So part of our job of apologetics is working out the false systems to the point we can spot their flaws- then, and only then, would a person accepting that truth be making an irrational decision.

        Even at that, though, I wrestle with a lot of Christian mysteries that seem irrational, so it’s hard for me to criticize someone of another faith system for believing what is obviously irrational to me. As you’ve probably heard me say before, there is no system of thing that doesn’t at least have the appearance of contradiction to me, but I choose Christiantiy because I think it is the MOST coherent, and take it on faith that God works out the difficult spots with more wisdom and knowledge than I could ever hope to have. But taking such a position means I’d be hard pressed to push too hard at others being “irrational”.

        And this is maybe where being a Calvinist impacts my thoughts a little. My job is to share the Gospel and do the work of making disciples. Whether people respond or do not is not a matter of their rational intelligence, but their heart’s willingness to repent and seek Christ (which I see as a work of grace). Through the history of western philosophy there have been brilliant Christians and non Christians- it doesn’t seem that salvation is based in intelligence. So in the end, I don’t see talking about the rationality of faith as being very useful- we believe because we have repentant hearts, and without that it doesn’t matter how rational a person is, he or she will never be a genuine believer.

  9. FG says:

    “Plus the way it seems to be widely used on the ground is essentially as a club to beat over the heads of non-Christians (‘My presuppositions are better than yours!’).”

    I actually don’t think those Van Tillian presuppositionalists would use the term “better”, as if it’s a matter of subjective preference. I’m quite certain they’re attempting to make an objective truth claim (which should be assessed for rational validity).

    It also doesn’t seem fair to suggest they are beating anyone over the head. Yes, they’re comparing their worldview with a non-Christian worldview and insisting that theirs is true, however, your criticism seems to imply that they have no right to promote what they believe to be true. I’m not suggesting I agree with either their Calvinism or their Van Tillian premises, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to criticize them for promoting what they take to be the truth. If a believer in Hinduism offered an argument for his belief, I would simply assess his arguments and respond to the argument itself. But I wouldn’t criticize the Hindu in such a way as to suggest he is beating anyone over the head merely because he insisted his worldview is true. Such a criticism suffers fatally from self-reference, i.e., insisting that the promotion of a truth-claim is equivalent to (metaphorically) beating others over the head is itself a truth-claim with which one is beating others over the head. So I’m simply suggesting that, just as we ought not to tell others they are “irrational”, we ought not tell others they are beating anyone over the head merely because they promote their views.

    • Hester says:

      I definitely don’t think merely putting forward an argument for your belief qualifies as beating someone over the head. I also was thinking not so much about the presupp. theologians themselves, but of the more “popularized” / condensed / watered-down version of their apologetics that is pushed in homeschool debate clubs, etc. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear (the original context in your comment at 9:39 of “everyone” and “most people” made me think of the “average guy”).

      “Beating over the head,” to me, would be a Christian who can’t get past the fact that the other person is a non-Christian and only interacts with them by picking on their beliefs. I’ve definitely seen this done by folks who had absorbed the more “popular” version of presupp. I mentioned above (though it’s hardly endemic to that crowd – to me it’s basically the same idea as leaving a tract for your waitress instead of a tip, just the more intellectual version).

      • FG says:

        I was merely commenting on what I mistakenly thought was a criticism against the Vision Forum representatives. However, you’re quite correct to note that one ought not to go around merely picking on others. There is a proper time and place to engage others regarding their ideas, and a person should exercise wisdom and discernment about such matters.

  10. Hester says:

    @ Jeff:

    “Even at that, though, I wrestle with a lot of Christian mysteries that seem irrational, so it’s hard for me to criticize someone of another faith system for believing what is obviously irrational to me. As you’ve probably heard me say before, there is no system of thing that doesn’t at least have the appearance of contradiction to me, but I choose Christiantiy because I think it is the MOST coherent, and take it on faith that God works out the difficult spots with more wisdom and knowledge than I could ever hope to have. But taking such a position means I’d be hard pressed to push too hard at others being ‘irrational.’ … So in the end, I don’t see talking about the rationality of faith as being very useful- we believe because we have repentant hearts, and without that it doesn’t matter how rational a person is, he or she will never be a genuine believer.”

    Thank you!!! I’ve been trying to think of a way to articulate this all day…

    • FG says:

      There seems to be a loose and subjective use of the term, “irrational”, here. It’s one thing to suggest that something doesn’t subjectively make sense to oneself. But that’s not at all what it means for something to be irrational. “Irrational”, in the philosophical sense in which we assess propositions, has to do with a failure to conform to laws of logic.

      Moreover, simply not having an answer to a difficult question is also not equivalent to something being irrational. Just because, for example, we don’t know precisely why God may allow some particular instance of evil to exist, that doesn’t mean there’s anything irrational about the existence of evil. So that, any valid criticism of Christianity must go beyond something that merely appears to be “irrational to me”. In order to claim Christianity is irrational, the critic needs to demonstrate which doctrine is in which violation of a law of logic.

      If I were, for example, to suggest to the atheist that his moral pronouncements are irrational in light of his denial of an objective lawgiver, that wouldn’t be a subjective feeling or opinion on my part. Or, if I were to suggest that any eastern worldview which denies absolute truth is logically absurd (i.e., irrational), that isn’t merely a matter of my opinion. The locution, “irrational to me”, isn’t itself a valid criticism against any proposition. It’s just a subjective opinion about our personal lack of understanding. But philosophical assessments about the rationality of another’s worldview are about ontological objects, and not about our own epistemic limitations.

      I respectfully disagree with the notion that one should not speak of the rationality of faith. Any belief-system which is not rational is one from which one should run away as quickly as possible. There’s nothing good or beneficial about holding to irrational propositions. It makes no sense to claim to worship a God of Truth if one doesn’t actually affirm that his faith is true and rational. God, being the very ground of logic, created us in His image and expects us to reflect His rational nature.

      • Jeff S says:

        FG, I am not in disagreement with you- and when I said talking about the rationality of the faith wasn’t very useful, I was not meaning to say there should be an injunction against discussing the rationality of the faith, but rather that the rationality of the seeker is not the key measure of whether he or she will find Christ.

        I am prepared, and have on many occasions, argued for the rationality of Christiantiy, including the irrationality of opposing viewpoints. I believe this is part of giving a reason for the hope I have in Christ. Nevertheless, I admit that there are parts of my beliefs that “seem” irrational to a non believer (note the “seem”- I do not consciously hold to any belief that I think is irrational), so as a matter of humility I will be careful in how hard I press against an opposing viewpoint’s irrationality. If they can see it, great, but honestly I would rather spend time talking to someone about what their hope is for answering their sin problem than the rationality of their current beliefs, because if a person feels, in error, that he or she is rational but does not trust Christ, he or she has a system of belief that is without hope. In my opinion that is the more critical focus of my attention.

  11. Hester says:

    Thanks, everybody, for all the support and comments! I honestly wasn’t expecting so many so soon… : )

  12. Looking for You says:

    Thank you for writing this, Hester! I do remember listening to this CD now. I suspect that I probably have the same Big Box you do and have listened to quite a few of the ones you are planning to critique. This is very exciting for me – I don’t always know how to articulate why I don’t believe the way VF folks do anymore, I just know (from the bad fruits it has produced in my own spiritual life) that something is very wrong with their System. So to sit down to read your impressive analysis… I feel like I am sitting down to a feast! Very much looking forward to more!

    As for this lecture by Phillips, he might has well have titled it “How to Think Like a Christian Narcissist.”

    And as for his “desert island” challenge (which I have heard a number of times), I sure do wish I’d have gotten stuck on an island with only my Bible looong before I ever heard of Vision Forum. Maybe I could have avoided the wasteland that was my spiritual life when I adhered to that thinking. But in all seriousness, it is sad to me how pervasive this kind of thinking is among these folks – to the extent that living in many of these families IS like being trapped on an island. They isolate themselves from “others” so much for the sake of purifying the application of all their principles down to the nittiest grittiest details… and on Sundays their “island” bumps into a few other identical islands and then they disperse again. Such a lonely existence. 😦

    Desert island thinking is, in my opinion, extremely contrary to the command to be “IN the world but not of it.” It denies the reality of living in a very real, very broken, very hurting world where “The Ideal Scenario” is pretty much non-existant, no matter how much one loves God.

  13. Looking for You says:

    “And this is maybe where being a Calvinist impacts my thoughts a little. My job is to share the Gospel and do the work of making disciples. Whether people respond or do not is not a matter of their rational intelligence, but their heart’s willingness to repent and seek Christ (which I see as a work of grace). Through the history of western philosophy there have been brilliant Christians and non Christians- it doesn’t seem that salvation is based in intelligence. So in the end, I don’t see talking about the rationality of faith as being very useful- we believe because we have repentant hearts, and without that it doesn’t matter how rational a person is, he or she will never be a genuine believer.”

    Jeff S,

    Excellent. When you put it that way, it would seem to me that Calvinism and Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics are actually at odds with each other? Wish I had more brain energy to think this through some more tonight, but dang, I’m tired!

  14. FG says:


    I’m not sure there’s an either/or dilemma with respect to the apologetic enterprise verses evangelism. They both have their place and serve their respective purposes in the Christian life. However, I would agree with you that evangelism takes priority over apologetics, since only the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe.

    • Jeff S says:

      My experience has been that when it comes to those who oppose the Gospel, apologetics has a limited place, though it does have a place. Most non Christians I run into couldn’t care less about rationality, arguments for the existence of God, or anything like that. They are wrapped up in the pervasive spirit of pragmatism that dominates our culture.

      There are those who are “thinkers” and commit grave errors of irrational thinking and I do use apologetics with them, however I only take this so far, because I’ve found that an unregenerate heart can easily use these discussions as a smoke screen to avoid dealing with the real issue. It’s amazing how a question like “What do think think the solution to your sin problems is?” can change the nature of a conversation for the better.

      I spend a lot more time talking about apologetics with believers (I am fortunate to work with some very intelligent, thinking Christians at work, so we talk about this stuff a lot) than I do actually framing arguments for unbelievers; however, I can recall at least one person who came at me with all of these questions, I had answers, and later found out he became a Christian- part of his process of coming to know the Lord was seeing that there WERE rational answers to all of his questions. But in his case, the questions were genuine, not a smokescreen for an unregenerate heart.

      All that to say, I think it becomes either/or when we have to consider the time we spend in our conversations with unbelievers.

      • FG says:

        I’ve often found that apologetics serve many purposes. Sometimes it’s not about trying to convince someone, in the sense that there’s no need to “close the deal”, so to speak. We never know if our apologetic efforts are the seeds that another will later water. It’s also beneficial to third party listeners, and, in fact, I sometimes have discussions more for the sake of a third party than for the person with whom I’m directly engaging. I also think apologetics helps the believer who may still have sincere questions that challenge them.

        In any case, I pretty much agree with your views on this.

  15. […] Phillips’ position, I’d just like to make a brief observation to tie this article back to the first in the Big Box series (How to Think Like a Christian). Near the beginning of the lecture, Phillips […]

  16. […] to Hester at scarletlettersblog, my eyes were opened to how presuppossitionalism has infiltrated so many aspects of the Christian […]

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