My new friend got back to me a few days later. He said that his presupposition was that he knew very little and was likely wrong about many things. And he suggested that my view was immoral for not caring enough to offer proof for itself when heaven and hell were at stake. I think that’s enough to set the context for my longer attempt to explain the important role of presuppositions.
I respect your journey and am benefitting from your push back. So thank you for sharpening me with your questions. I made a few notes as I read your email, and I’ll number them to help me keep them in a logical order.
1. Your beliefs that you “know very little” and are “likely wrong about many things” are probably not your presuppositions. These are not your most foundational beliefs but are rather the result or consequence of your presuppositions. If you think about it, your ultimate presupposition must be something like “I believe only what I can prove,” and your resulting skepticism arises from the fact that you don’t think you can prove very much.
2. This skepticism, which on one level is honest and admirable, is ultimately unlivable. You can’t do much in life if you really think that you know very little. In fact, I suspect that you actually are confident about your belief in many things. For example, you know that Obama is president, that the Cavs are in the playoffs, and that you exist, etc.
3. Even your statement that my view is “immoral” implies that you believe in the existence of God. Can you logically claim that something is evil if there is no God who makes it so? My view may offend you, but that by itself doesn’t qualify it as evil. It may offend an entire group, but we’re still merely dealing with individual or social preference. One of the best proofs for God’s existence is the impossibility of the contrary. If God does not exist, then can anything be truly evil?
4. All systems of thought are circular, and yours is as circular as mine. Your presupposition is that you should only believe what you can prove. But can you prove that presupposition? If you and I start from different presuppositions, then our evidence and argument will never persuade the other. The best we can do is ask each other whose presuppositions make the best sense of the world. Do I think and live as if your presuppositions are true or do you rely upon mine?
5. All systems of thought are circular, but they don’t have to be viciously circular. My presuppositions are that God exists and that he reveals himself in Scripture. Because I believe that God reveals himself to me, I don’t believe that I am starting with myself but with the God who breaks into my circle from above.
I understand and appreciate why you are probably screaming right now, “Saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.” I can tell you that there are lots of evidence for the Bible being a special book—such as its truthfulness, wisdom, fulfilled prophecies, and manuscript tradition—but at the end of the day the Spirit of God must overcome our blindness and enable us to see that the Bible is more than this but is actually the very words of God. I suspect that you have felt something like this when you read the words and stories of Jesus.
6. So I begin with the presupposition that Scripture is God’s Word, but I still have to read this correctly. Here I think I am as humble as you, for I freely admit that my interpretation could be wrong. I am puzzled why you say that I think that whatever I believe is true simply because I believe it. I have never thought that and in fact regularly teach against that. I believe many things that are false, and if I knew which ones they were I would change them!
However, with all due humility and recognizing that I could be wrong, I must acknowledge that the central message of Scripture is clear and accessible to all who read it. Even if you limit yourself to the message of Jesus, you cannot avoid his claim that you must believe in and follow him to be saved from the terrors of hell. I don’t see how it is arrogant or naïve to say so.
7. I appreciate why you are offended that my view “doubts [your] sincerity.” I do not know you, so obviously my view does not assert this in a personal way. However, my presupposition is that the Bible is the Word of God, and so I believe Rom. 1:18-32 when it says that everyone knows and suppresses the knowledge of God that they have. I think that this suppression may occur at a deep, subconscious level—so that you may honestly believe that you are searching for God and simply following where the evidence leads. While this may be true, Rom. 1 says that you already possess sufficient evidence and even knowledge of God, and that those who claim ignorance of God are “without excuse.”
8. I carefully considered whether to ask this, so understand that I realize this may seem offensive, but is it possible that your skepticism is a last ditch effort to avoid the claims of Christ? You and I are both sinners—wanting to play God and control our world (look around and you’ll realize that this is the universal human condition). Your skepticism does provide intellectual cover for keeping God at arm’s length. If you honestly aren’t sure about his existence or his revelation, then you have the freedom not to obey him. I know this may offend you, but at least acknowledge that you have a vested interest in not knowing God or his Word. This alone doesn’t prove that your view is wrong, but it at least should make you suspicious. And to be fair, I acknowledge that as a seminary professor and author I also have a vested interest in my view—so perhaps we both should be suspicious of our motives!
9. Your email ends with the admission that you are “keenly aware of all my short-comings and figuratively beat my chest in despair at my own repeated failures.” I take this to mean that you understand that in some sense you are a sinner. If that’s true, then you must also know that you need grace. Not just a little bit but all of it. You cannot be free of your guilt without the personal God you have offended pouring his grace upon you.
Consider this argument:
a. Your sense of guilt implies the existence of God (if you haven’t offended a personal absolute then there is no reason to beat yourself up over your sin).
b. If God exists, then he must be all good and all powerful (a being short of this would not be God, or the greatest possible being).
c. If God is all good, then it is probable that he has provided a way of grace to save us from our sin and guilt.
d. Jesus is the only candidate for this job. Other religions, such as Islam, say that we partially save ourselves. Only Christianity says that our salvation is entirely of grace. We may not be convinced that Jesus is God, but we must know that he is precisely what we need. And that is worth giving Jesus and his gospel a long look—and the benefit of the doubt. Is it more appropriate to withhold belief in Jesus until you have an ironclad argument or to believe unless you have good reason not to?