Doing Apologetics: "From Below" or "From Above"?

Karl Barth spoke of doing theology "from below," in distinction from doing it "from above." If someone starts out looking at this natural world and tries to inductively conclude something about God, (or the supernatural realm "above"), he cannot do it, Barth would claim. Only if someone starts "from above" in presupposing God (or the supernatural realm), and tries to explain the natural world from that presupposition (for him the Bible as a "witness"), can it be done. My professor Dr. James D. Strauss argued likewise, although he is no Barthian. He would argue "we either start with God or we'll never get to God." So a big question is in trying to justify our starting point. Do we start "from above," or "from below"?

As a Thomist, Norman Geisler’s arguments start “from below.” His apologetic includes 12 steps: 1) Truth about reality is knowable; 2) Opposites cannot both be true; 3) The theistic God exists; 4) Miracles are possible; 5) Miracles performed in connection with a truth claim are acts of God to confirm the truth of God through a messenger of God; 6) The New Testament documents are reliable; 7) As witnessed in the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be God; 8) Jesus’ claim to divinity was proven by an unique convergence of miracles; 9) Therefore, Jesus was God in human flesh; 10) Whatever Jesus (who is God) affirmed as true, is true; 11) Jesus affirmed that the Bible is the Word of God; 12) Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God and whatever is opposed to any biblical truth is false.”[1]

The thing about Geisler's twelve apologetical steps is that his whole case will fall to the ground if any one step if shown faulty. I'm not even so sure about his first step!

However, isn't it obvious that if you must presuppose God, then you may begin with a false presupposition to begin with? If humans have such a strong tendency to defend what they were raised to believe, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, then they will probably be able to defend whatever they first presuppose. And if that's the case, their arguments probably beg the question.

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[1] From Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), “Apologetics, Argument of"

14 comments:

GordonBlood said...

I agree with everything said... pre-suppositionalism was nonsense for me when I was agnostic and I consider it even worse now that im a Christian. Good post.

John W. Loftus said...

But don't you see the dilemna here? "From Above" is probably question begging. The "From Below" chain of reasoning is only as good as its weakest link.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

The "Geisler 12-Step Program" is a fascinating collection of presuppositions, testable hypotheses, and arguable affirmations -- including one 'ticking bomb' that can explode in many theists' face. I'm going to look at a couple of them now, and come back to the rest later.

1) Truth about reality is knowable
AGREED! This is the one 'Act of Faith' that both believers and scientists MUST share. I'd expand it a little as follows
a) External reality exists and is not an illusion in the collective (or individual) mind.
b) There is a general correspondence between our observations and 'reality.' That what we perceive, directly or through instruments, within limits, correlates with the external world
c) this correspondence remains constant over time and space -- again within limits.

2) Opposites cannot both be true
AGREED with some hedging -- e.g., the 'wave-particle duality' and other similar phenomenon. But this must be dealt with extremely carefully, since the structure of the language we use can cause us to see two things, phenomena, or ideas as 'opposite' when they are, in fact, not so.

3) The theistic God exists
This is, of course, the hypothesis we are testing. (And, of course, Geisler assumes that 'the theistic God' and 'his God' are the same, though, to give him credit, he at least attempts to establish this rather than just asserting it.

4) Miracles are possible
AGREED at least that if the theistic God exists, they are. Saying they are 'possible' however, does not say they ever occurred.

5) Miracles performed in connection with a truth claim are acts of God to confirm the truth of God through a messenger of God
THIS is the 'ticking bomb' and I'll come back to it later. I'll just ask now if they 'affirm the existence of God' as Geisler suggests, or if they 'affirm the truth of the message being brought by the messenger,' as seems more reasonable.

6) The New Testament documents are reliable
This is, of course, one of the great weaknesses. I have no difficulty in proving the opposite because of certain specific contradictions or absurdities. Then there are the irresolvable conflicts between John and the Synoptics.
Accepting the reliability of the NT also means accepting that Paul, who never met or heard Jesus and received his knowledge in a vision, was more accurate in understanding the message than Jesus' companions.
And finally it requires an assertion of 'Divine Intervention' in the selection of which books were to be included in the Canon and which excluded.
(I don't need to bring up the question of translation or of copyist errors, now.)

I'll deal with the later -- and much shakier -- hypotheses later.

John W. Loftus said...

Prup, you lost me at step one. You said this was an "Act of Faith." Remember we're dealing with an apologist who does not want to begin "from above," so Geisler cannot start with an "act of faith."

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

John:
'axiom'
'postulate'
'act of faith'
'statement assumed to be true and used to prove other statements'
these are ALL EQUIVALENT STATEMENTS. It is impossible to construct any system of thought without having certain 'unproven statements' as starting points.
(I chose the 'act of faith' phrase because atheists, particularly scientifically-based atheists, are often accused of equally acting on faith. I agree, for the reason given in my last sentence above, but the statements I made in my expansion of Geisler's initial postulate -- and certain assumptions of logic which his second statement are an example of -- are the only examples of this.)

Certainly Geisler is not attempting to derive this statement. That the real world is 'knowable' that it even exists outside our mind, that our perceptions tell us things that accurately relate to the real world, all are, and have to be postulates, or 'acts of faith.' (After all, solipsism IS unprovable.)

If there is confusion, it is Geisler's not mine or yours.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

In fact, John, my point was that it is GEISLER who mixes postulates, hypotheses, testable assertions, and other types of statement. What I am trying to do is attempt to separate them out and analyse them.

John W. Loftus said...

Certainly Geisler is not attempting to derive this statement.

Then you are simply ignorant about Geisler. He claims that agnosticism is "self-defeating."

SteveJ said...

Miracles performed in connection with a truth claim are acts of God to confirm the truth of God through a messenger of God.
There's no reason to assume that a miracle renders the miracle-worker's message true. Maybe the purpose of the miracle is simply to signify the existence of a higher reality, not necessarily to clothe the miracle-worker in papal-like authority.

The New Testament documents are reliable.
Geisler probably means that everything in the NT is true, which is manifestly untrue. The parallel accounts of the resurrection and Peter's denials are sufficient to demonstrate this.

As witnessed in the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be God.
I really wish people would challenge this taken-for-granted more often. The NT evidence that Jesus "claimed to be God" is meager. He claimed to be God's son and said repeatedly he was sent by God. But the quest for unambiguous claims of deity -- claims that need no supporting argument from theologians -- is a dead-end quest.

Jesus’ claim to divinity was proven by an unique convergence of miracles.
In Acts, Peter claims that Jesus worked miracles because he was anointed by God and because "God was with him." Hardly a statement of faith in Jesus as God. Elijah and Elisha also manifested a "unique convergence of miracles," but no one claims deity for them.

Jesus affirmed that the Bible is the Word of God.
He was a Torah-observant Jew, so he regarded the OT scriptures highly. What on earth does that prove about the New Testament?? Nothing!! Jesus never breathed a syllable about soon-to-be-written scriptures that would function as the Word of God.

Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God and whatever is opposed to any biblical truth is false.
Geisler's chain breaks at so many points, there's no way to arrive at such a conclusion without an invincible will to believe it.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

SteveJ:
You make many of the points I would have, as as with most people here, more briefly than I would have. But I want to add to some you have made because they are even stronger than you make them.
"Jesus claimed to be God."

In fact, -- particularly in the Synoptics, you can find little evidence of this, and these were arguably later additions.
If they were accurate, then either he contradicted himself repeatedly in his distinguishing himself from 'the Father,' which makes his claims false, or the 'distinguishing comments' were later additions -- which is absurd. (There is a principle in Biblical and Documentary criticism that you take the harder reading as more likely to be accurate, because a person is more likely to change a 'difficult idea' into a more familiar one than the other way around. The recorded words of Jesus that disagreed with the theology in the Bible likely remained because -- that close to his life -- they were too well known to be altered.

Of course, the best demonstration is his final "Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani." If he considered himself God, he would be saying "Lord, Lord, why have I forsaken me?" which is absurd, or there would have been almost a 'multiple-personality' split between his 'human' and 'divine' natures.

You state he 'claimed to be the Son of God' but did he? Yes, he spoke of 'my Father' and 'the Father' but he also instructed his followers to pray 'Our Father...' and certainly he was not arguing for their divine incarnation.

(I LOVE your point about Elijah and Elisha, btw.)

Okay, let's split this one up. Next stops, miracles and the Bible.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

SteveJ:
I'd argue the opposite as far as miracles go. I would argue that were there to be a god who performed true miracles, he would only perform them as a direct confirmation of the entire message of his messenger. This ain't horseshoes, 'close enough' don't cut it.

(Your idea that they are simply to signify the existence of a higher reality is, if you think it through, horrible. Because why such small ones? Why raise Lazarus and not the infants with cancer, why darken the sun at the Crucifixion and not deflect the tsunami or quiet the Pakistani earthquake?)
And I can't see a Christian-type God simply acting capriciously, "Okay, let's give a miracle to the Catholics this week, then next week we'll heal somebody for the Baptists. Maybe we'll send one the Muslims' way, if they'll stop blowing each other up. And hey, we haven't done much for the Mormons recently, let's give them one to celebrate Joe Smith's birthday."

But, as I said, this is a 'ticking bomb.' If my interpretation is right, ANY miracle not only PROVES the specific interpretation it supports, it DISPROVES all the rest. If one healing at Lourdes is truly miraculous, there goes Protestantism out the window. If one faith healer really performed a miracle, better study his theology closely because he got it right, on infant baptism, or salvation through works, or making the sign of the cross with two or three fingers, or on the proper reading of the Lord's Prayer, or whatever. (Geisler's Point 2 pretty much forces this interpretation as well. Opposites can't both be true, so if God 'supports' two contradictory readings of his message, he is, in at least one case, supporting falsehood.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

SteveJ:
One last quicky before the Mets. Jesus never did, as you point out, affirm the New Testament. (Most likely because, since he was expecting an immanent "New World" he saw no reason for something like this.)

If he had, is it imaginable that he wouldn't have written a book himself, rather than let -- at best -- the confused minds of his followers attempt to do so. He was, if God, fully aware of how contradictory a job they would do, how things would get lost, mis-copied, and added to over the ages. He knew that there would be many Gospels, and that different groups of followers would insist theirs was authentic. He foresaw the wrangling over homoousian and salvation through grace or through grace and works, the controversies over Baptism, etc. ad infinitum.

His own book might not have settled all of these, but it would have been a major improvement over what we have now, and if the book came from the 'Man-God' himself, contained HIS OWN WORDS, the copyists would have been far more careful with it. (There's little doubt that the Muslims -- once they finally got around to putting together the Qur'an after years of sloppiness -- DID do a better job of preserving the original texts.)

I continue to be amazed at the way -- if you look at Christian beliefs closely -- they repeatedly come out as arguing that God or Jesus didn't care enough about his message getting transmitted to take the most elementary steps to see it was done. But then they can always argue "Blessed are those that have not seen but have believed." Maybe someday someone will explain how that makes sense.

lowendaction said...

john,

Much of this conversation is way above my pay-grade, but I would like to make a quick comment about one of your closing lines:

...have such a strong tendency to defend what they were raised to believe, especially when it comes to religious beliefs,...

This is not the first time I have seen this rather dismissive attitude towards theists, and their "sad little beliefs that they were force-fed to believe" disease. Though I could attest to a great deal of self-proclaimed Christians who do in fact have such an upbringing, it does not stand true for all believers.

Strangely enough, I was in fact raised under such circumstances, however I made a clear break from this "presupposed" belief some time ago, and embarked on a journey of spiritual self discovery (a journey, which I am still on).

I'm not really that pissed here, but do feel slightly offended by the off-handed tone that such a remark has. If it was intended as such...well there you have it. If not, than clearly I have over reacted.

thank you

John W. Loftus said...

lowendaction, sorry if I've offended you, but take a good look at my defense of this argument here.

SteveJ said...

I'd argue the opposite as far as miracles go. I would argue that were there to be a god who performed true miracles, he would only perform them as a direct confirmation of the entire message of his messenger.

Prup, here's an interesting take:

http://myspeculation.blogspot.com/2005/08/what-do-miracles-prove.html