Dr. James White is a dear brother in the Lord and, while we may not agree on everything, I continue to believe he is one of the most skilled Christian debaters and defenders of the faith currently living and operating within the Reformed community.
Lately, the classical v. presuppositional debate has once again kicked off, all for good reasons. There are various groups involved in the broader discussion. Skylining, however, might be the For the New Christian Intellectual (FTNCI) with Jacob Brunton & Cody Libolt versus men like White & Sye Ten Bruggencate.
I have dear friends on both sides of this debate, but make no mistake, I am an outspoken proponent of the scholastic, classical method which, in substance, puts me on the same side of the line as Brunton and Libolt, at least in terms of natural theology and the way in which Christians should argue for God’s existence. However, I am not part of FTNCI and would appreciate distinction moving forward.
That said, I think White is wrong here. If he thinks FTNCI is off the mark as it concerns apologetics he needs to deliver the death-blow demonstration. If they are dead wrong, demonstrating it to be the case ought to be a cake-walk. So, my design for this post is to elicit White’s carefully thought-out response to classicalism. I and others would appreciate such a response. Not a response to FTNCI per se, but a response to the classicalism they espouse.
Recently, White posted on Facebook:
“To be educated means to cease to be a presuppositionalist” says JD Hall’s personal manager while walking around a park recording on his camera. This, my friends, is the new Christian intellectual!
Meanwhile I hear Target still has toilet paper! Civilization endures!
Pro-tip: choosing to ignore the epistemological ramifications of a consistent, serious exegesis of Romans 1 (which the NCI guys have yet to produce) does not result in the rest of the world becoming uneducated.
There are a few problems with this, the least of which is not the fact it’s Facebook conjecture. One can’t help but notice the “pro-tip” smugness, a brand of self-exaltation I’m sure both Calvin and Knox dreamt of one day possessing (sorry, but that’s just what it is). In all seriousness, though, the devil is in the details. Let’s look further and avoid building mountains from molehills.
White implies there are epistemological ramifications of “serious” Romans 1 exegesis. I agree. But has he given us what he thinks these ramifications are? I’m not doubtful he has, but I am doubtful he’s applied his exegesis of Romans 1 within this particular context in any meaningful sense. Yet, he criticizes FTNCI for not producing serious exegesis on Romans 1 concerning this very issue.
Some questions: First, what is serious exegesis? Second, can White demonstrate FTNCI hasn’t produced such material? It’s unquestionable that they have produced material concerning Romans 1, so Dr. White merely needs to show where such material is wanting. This should be an easy task since—according to White—Brunton and Libolt are apparently beyond the reaches of rationality.
There’s More to this Debate
I’m concerned that as Christians on social media become more conscious of this near-fathomless discussion, their first impression might be that this is a narrow conversation between FTNCI and people like James White, as if FTNCI had some novel standing whilst White holds up the “Reformed” banner. This is a much larger discussion with personalities in the periphery such as Richard Muller, Craig Carter, and James Dolezal, the three of which might be contrasted with John Frame and Vern Poythress. Needless to say, there are some heavy-hitters producing scholarship either directly or indirectly associated with this discussion, not to mention the late Dr. R. C. Sproul who had a heavy hand in producing a monumental work in favor of classical apologetics (cf. Classical Apologetics, by Sproul, Gerstner, & Lindsley). It also included a death-blow critique of Van Til’s presuppositionalism.
Shifting the discussion back a few years, I would be interested to see if White could find any pre-Enlightenment doctors of the faith who would agree with him on presuppositionalism. We have every reason to believe Francis Turretin would’ve classified Cornelius Van Til’s work as Socinian with its notion of revelational epistemology (cf. Institutes, vol. 1). John Owen prefaced his work on biblical theology with a somewhat lengthy discussion on natural theology (Biblical Theology, ch. 1). Stephen Charnock, time and time again, relied on Thomas Aquinas in his argumentation for God’s existence (cf. The Existence and Attributes of God). Peter van Mastricht also presented the classical proofs and classical doctrine of God in volume 2 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology.
True, the Reformed and post-Reformed did not place the stress on natural theology that, say, the medieval scholastics did. The Puritans were especially eclectic in this regard. Nevertheless, the chorus composed of our theological forefathers would’ve wholesale rejected Van Til’s epistemology, the very bedrock of presuppositional thought. Concerning this, there ought be no doubt.
Know, therefore, that this discussion is not one merely had between some fringe entity called For the New Christian Intellectual and a few contemporary Reformed scholars. This discussion is between historical, classical Reformed orthodoxy (a la. the Puritans & every Reformed Confession) and those who have, mostly inadvertently, adopted post-Enlightenment thought into their philosophical and theological frameworks (a la. Van Tillian & Bahnsenite types).
Much of what I say here will be circling wagons. But White’s claim is that serious exegesis to the opposite effect of presuppositionalism from Romans 1 has not been conducted (at least by FTNCI). But it has been conducted in a most rigorous fashion throughout the years by classical theologians and FTNCI, as far as I can tell, is merely parroting the near-unanimous reading of Romans 1 prior to the Enlightenment.
The divide between classicalism and presuppositionalism is epistemic in nature, and it largely revolves around two major questions: “What does everyone know about God?” and, “How do they know it?” I believe Romans 1:20 answers part of the first question and nearly all of the second:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse… (NKJV)
What is known about God? His invisible attributes. His invisible attributes (lit. the invisible things of Him) are thoroughly perceived, and they are perceived in the present tense. Further, the Lord’s eternal power and divine nature (Godhead) are also presently revealed. This is revelational information made available to all people. This is what constitutes natural (general) revelation.
The next question to answer from this text is how (?) these things about God are perceived. This is the question of natural theology, or our knowledge of natural revelation. How does natural revelation “get into” our intellects (thus becoming a natural theology)? How are the things about God understood (νοούμενα)? They are understood presently and passively. This means that at present all rational human beings understand or perceive God through what has been made. The “by the things that are made” is in the dative case signifying instrumental causality. It is by or through what is made that people perceive the divine nature. The NASB renders it as follows:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
None of this ought to be controversial. The classicalist merely affirms everything that is said here. We deny that the sensus divinitatus is a content-loaded repository of pre-downloaded (a priori) facts about God possessed by all people from the womb. That is simply not what Romans 1 teaches. Romans 1:20 tells us that we perceive through what has been made (mediately). But v. 20 would be false if indeed we do not know God through what is made. As it is, however, we know through a process of ratiocination—looking at our surroundings, examining what has been made, etc. We have a mediate knowledge of God which begins with basic sense perception.
It’s on the basis of Romans 1 that classicalists have rejected Van Til’s revelational epistemology with its demand for an illogical presupposition of God. For Van Til, Bahnsen, and Oliphint alike, God must be presupposed before any fact, even the laws of logic. But, as Sproul’s Classical Apologetics points out, such an idea engages the principle of explosion. How is God made intelligible to us without the laws of logic first being presupposed?
The Purpose of God in Creation
White has also claimed that God’s existence is the sole subject of general revelation (revelation of God through nature). He contends that “all general revelation communicates is the existence of God—but not His purpose.” If White means here that God’s saving purpose is not revealed through general revelation, we’d be happy to grant the claim. But that’s not what he wrote. He seems to be saying God’s purpose is per se not revealed through general revelation.
Yet, if we simply move beyond Romans 1 to Romans 2, we’d see this is prima facie false. Not only does existence itself bear purpose (through final causality, teleology), and not only do the Reformed confessions say that we know God’s wisdom through that which has been made, Romans 2 tells us that the law of God is written on the hearts of Gentiles. Romans 2:14-15 says:
… for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them…
I’m 99% positive White and I would agree on the meaning of this passage. Even the pagans have the law of God revealed in themselves. This is one of the senses in which knowledge of God may be considered innate. But for the Reformers (cf. Turretin), the innate knowledge was still inferred knowledge. We reason to the existence of a law-Maker through the revelation of a natural law.
I once had a seminary professor contend that the Gentiles in this context were believing Gentiles. Such an interpretation would be a stretch since (1) Paul never calls Christians Gentiles in the present tense (Gal. 3:28); (2) the context, starting in Romans 1, are those who are outside of Christ. In the very next passage, starting in v. 17, Paul moves to discuss a second guilty party, the Jews. The point of Romans 2 is to say there is no exception. God does not show partiality (Rom. 2:11). All are guilty in His sight. Romans 1-3 set the reader up for the glories of Romans 4-9. It’s doom and gloom, and then Christ!
While I appreciate Dr. James White’s years of service to the church, I do not think he has been correct in his characterization of the current apologetic landscape. Though I disagree with much of their approach, the lion-share of FTNCI’s argumentation, in terms of apologetic substance, are simply those of Reformed Scholastic antiquity. All people know God, but they know God through inference—by what is made. All knowledge begins at the senses through which it ends up in the intellect. Helpful on this point are the words of Dr. Ed Feser:
The standard Scholastic position, following Aristotle, was that (a) there is a sharp difference between the intellect on the one hand and the senses and imagination on the other, but that nevertheless (b) nothing gets into the intellect except through the senses. To have a concept like triangularity is not the same thing as having any sort of mental image (visual, auditory, or whatever), since concepts have a universality that images lack, possess a determinate or unambiguous content that images cannot have, and so forth. Still, the intellect forms concepts only by abstracting from images, and these have their origin in the senses.
I would love to see more dialogue on this point, especially with White and some other larger influences. This discussion in particular has a lot of far-reaching corollaries which take us all the way into the social justice controversy with its standpoint epistemology; the great divide between the rationalists and the empiricists; pre-modernity v. modernity and post-modernity; realism v. nominalism, etc.
There are questions being asked in this debate with answers that have shaped the very bedrock upon which the contemporary church does much of its thinking, for better or worse. Many of these questions have been given wrong answers for many years, post-Enlightenment. It is crucial we labor to provide the right ones, to the glory of God and for the sake of future generations.