Read the series so far.
A Case Study: Harold Netland and the Demand for Neutrality
As we further consider whether reason should be categorized separately from faith as properly functioning independent of it, I cite the example of an article by Harold Netland entitled, “Apologetics, Worldviews, and the Problem of Neutral Criteria.”1 In Netland’s 1991 article we see an able but, I believe, misguided critique of presuppositionalist John M. Frame’s epistemology as set forth in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. The overall burden of Netland’s complaint is clear, there must be some mutually shared neutral criteria that all people, whether Theist, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Humanist, or whatever, can use to judge each other’s positions.2 It is the possibility of this neutral ground that Frame, in common with other biblical presuppositionalists (including the present writer) denies.
The first stratagem of Netland is to label Frame’s position “theological fideism,” which quickly becomes “fideism” as the article proceeds.3 Having done this he presents his position as the one that will use reason instead of eschewing it.4 The main question he wants answered is this: “Given our religiously pluralistic world an obvious question arises…’Why should one accept the Christian presupposition instead of the Hindu or Buddhist presuppositions?’”5 Behind this question is his assumption that Frame is claiming that, “ultimate presuppositions (commitments)…can be accepted or rejected at will.”6
It should not take a hard-core Van Tilian to point out that this is exactly the opposite of what theologians like Frame are saying. For example, Van Til himself stated, “We cannot choose epistemologies as we choose hats.”7 Netland makes a further mistake by equating Frame’s version of a “presupposition” with a properly basic belief.8 He objects that, “Epistemically basic beliefs cannot be presuppositions for they are (logically) necessary for there to be any presuppositions in the first place!”9 Unfortunately, Netland has not understood what Frame means by a “presupposition,” which Frame defines as ones “ultimate commitment.”10 Netland interprets “ultimate” to mean “prior,” as if it were the very first condition of man’s thinking. But this is not Frame’s contention at all. To quote a very plain statement from another of Frame’s works:
Nor should we emphasize the pre- in presupposition to suggest that a presupposition must be held at some point in time prior to all our other knowledge. The pre- in presuppositionrefers to the “pre-eminence” of the presupposition with respect to our other beliefs.11
This makes Netland think that in Frame’s analysis of epistemology, “Fundamental epistemological problems are reinterpreted and dismissed as being largely spiritual in nature.”12 He identifies three fields; logic, semantics, and hermeneutics, and asks whether these must be assumed before we even read the Bible—the great ultimate commitment of the presuppositionalist.13 It is clear to Netland that, for example, the law of non-contradiction needs to be appealed to “as a neutral criterion” in order to start the Christian ball rolling.14 Faith enters too early into Presuppositional epistemology, he thinks.
On this level playing field both believer and non-believer can employ the law of contradiction neutrally as they read the Bible, or each other, or when they argue with each other. We feel like inquiring whether Netland has read Romans 8 recently, for there Paul divides mankind into “spiritually minded” and “carnally minded.” If “the carnal mind is enmity toward God” (Rom.8:7), it would seem to us that to follow the law of non-contradiction, and to allow it to operate uninterruptedly without calling attention to its misuse, would be a failure to obey Romans 12:2 and thus would be to sin (Rom. 14:23). When Christ saved us He gave us new eyes.
Now we acknowledge that the laws of thought and grammar come from God and they must be used as God would have us use them. This is what the unbeliever will not do. In fact, he will use these laws to construct arguments against God! He will use them to convince himself that his false picture of the world is in fact true, and that the Christian picture is a forgery. What the unbeliever needs is faith to reason as he ought to reason. Faith directs reason as it needs to be directed—in dependence upon the Creator of mans mind. Reason isn’t neutral. It was never intended to be.
In the biblical worldview epistemological problems are largely spiritual and ethical in nature: if we were not spiritually separated from the mind and life of God we would automatically think all of our thoughts in reference to the One who gives them meaning. Netland, and those Christians who follow him, fails to see that the laws of logic and grammar, etc.,15 which he wishes to use “neutrally” when speaking to an unbeliever, are reflections of the mind of the Creator and so are themselves revelatory. In order for Netland to employ these laws neutrally he will first have to disengage them from their Source.16 He writes, for example,
If indeed there are no neutral principles or criteria for assessment17, and if all criteria are internal to a given worldview…the argument appeals to factors, principles, or criteria which…cannot be used legitimately to make judgments about competing worldviews. Epistemologically it makes no difference whether the worldview in question is Christian theism or Advanta Vedanta Hinduism.18
His claim is that absence of neutral criteria makes it impossible to make universal truth-statements.19 But if he claims that he has not only denied the Word of the God he is trying to prove, he has given up any justification for using these laws in the first place.
Naturally, the old objection about circularity comes to the fore. But again Netland fails to notice that there is an inevitable circularity involved in all ultimate commitments, since without such assertions one could hardly count them as ultimate. It has been pointed out before that a rationalist, for example, will not argue for his epistemology by calling attention to empirical data. Likewise, no evolutionary naturalist is ever going to argue from or to a supernaturalist standpoint. To do so would be to destroy ones own opinions with a self-contradiction. Frame has stated that circularity must be an integral part of a self-contained evaluative system.20 Furthermore, he is joined in this assertion by those who one would never associate with presuppositionalism,21 and by Carl Henry, who declares, “Consciously or unconsciously, belief systems rest on fundamental assumptions which decisively and comprehensively interpret all reality and life.”22 And Van Til adds that it is improper to define such reasoning as circular when one considers the fact that God is on an altogether higher level of reality (though He is also immanent) as Lord of what He has made. Thus, Van Til explains, “We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe. If God is to come into contact with us it is natural that the initiative must be with him. And this will also apply to the very question about the relation of God to us.”23
What we have tried to bring out in this article is that the Christian must place faith before reason if reason is to operate correctly. Faith is necessary if we are to please God (Heb. 11:6). If we are neglecting revelation at any point, we are, at least in principle, saying that it is okay for the believer to operate independently of God in the world. That is tantamount to refusing to engage “the mind of Christ” which has been made available to us through the Author of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:16; cf. 3:23).
1 Harold A. Netland, “Apologetics, Worldview, and the Problem of Neutral Criteria,”—Trinity Journal, 12:1 (Spring 1991), 39-58.
2 Netland, 52 and 54.
3 Ibid, 44.
5 Ibid, 47
6 Ibid, 50
7 Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1969), xiv.
8 A belief is “properly basic” when it needs no supporting or affirming argument on its behalf.
9 Netland, 51, emphasis added. As an example of what he means he says, “one cannot presuppose anything—whether it be God or some other object of ultimate commitment—without appealing to (among other things) the principle of non-contradiction,”—Ibid.
10 It should be noted that at crucial points in his argument Netland fails to give any citations from Frame’s book, preferring, as it appears, to give his own interpretation of what Frame mustmean.
11 John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1995), 137-138.
12 Netland, 53.
13 Ibid, 54
14 “Can we not appeal to the principle of non-contradiction, for example, as at least one neutral criterion?”—54.
16 This would be like a person removing the hands from his wristwatch and then expecting them to tell him the time. One can not justify the laws of thought, nor their use, if they are disconnected from the God who put them within us in the first place. Outside of our being created in God’s image (which at least includes the gift of reason) there is no adequate explanation of why man reasons and how he can comprehend the world about him. In a sense this is philosophically equivalent to Michael Behe’s “specified complexity” wherein certain phenomena in molecular biology attain meaning and purpose only when they are viewed as components of integrated systems.
17 Notice how Netland equates the two.
18 Netland, 52.
20 Frame, 255.
21 See, for example, D. Elton Trueblood’s remarks on necessary circularity in his Philosophy of Religion, (New York: Harper Brothers, 1957), 53.
22 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 1.180.
23 Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1970), 201.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.