Sunday, November 8, 2009

Refuting Bahnsen's refutation of Clark pt. 3

Bahnsen’s next section is entitled “Possibility vs. Necessity.” In it, he argues that Clark assumes that Christianity is merely probably rather than certain, a possibility rather than a necessity. If this were true, Clark would be giving too much to the unbelieving view, which always reduces to absurdity and meaninglessness in its disbelief.

As before, and what may prove to be a consistent error on Bahnsen’s part, Bahnsen does not read Clark in the charitable manner that he promises. The chief error in Bahnsen’s criticism is the failure to distinguish between Clark’s argumentation from within his opponent’s assumptions, and Clark’s argumentation upon his own presupposition. Clark’s professed methodology is to use the laws of logic to do internal critiques (variously through reductio ad absurdum, argument ad hominem, and modus tollens forms of argument) of his opponents’ positions. In doing so, Clark’s language assumes what his opponents’ would assume in order to demonstrate where they are inconsistent, overestimate their conclusions, or underestimate the Christian position.

Keeping this in mind, let us turn to Bahnsen’s criticisms.

His opening quote from this section is from Clark’s book on Karl Barth. The quote in full says:
A more skeptical view of the amount of truth obtainable by experimentation, with the help of operationalism, might bring the idea of subordination back again within the limits of possibility. The Scripture is a better source than experimentation is for the norms of ethics and politics; perhaps there is some way to bring physics and zoology also under this authority. (p. 68 in the 1963 edition, p. 77 in the 1997 edition I have)

Continuing, Bahnsen pulls a quote from Clark’s book, Religion, Reason, and Revelation:
From a logical standpoint it is equal whether one’s assumptions are philosophical or theological, Christian or not. (p. 8 in the 1961 edition, p. 112 in the 2004 book, Christian Philosophy)

Bahnsen then argues on the basis of these quotes that Clark has “completely dissolved” whatever absolute character the presupposition of God’s Word held.

In the context of the quotation from Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Clark is examining Barth’s own approach to theological study. Clark is exposing how Barth has capitulated to modernism rather than maintaining a consistent Reformed approach. The quotation is simply pointing out that any view more skeptical of the truth of observation than is modernism would allow for the possibility of subordination of the sciences to theology. Following the quote, Clark inquires as to what may be Barth’s view of science, and then Clark articulates the Reformed position, without any qualifications of “possibility.” What Clark is doing is comparing Barth’s view to various others in order to expose what may be accepted as consistent with his own presupposition (and really with Reformed theology) and what is not. Clark is nowhere articulating that his own presupposition is “possible” as opposed to dogmatically absolute. In fact, his language is decidedly assertive:
From any professedly Christian point of view it is difficult to maintain that the cosmos is unordered; and or a Reformed theologian this is about the poorest reply possible. Calvinism strenuously insists upon the eternal all-comprehensive plan of God, in which neither a hair of one’s head nor a dead sparrow lies outside the foreordained order. Equally impossible in Calvinism is the notion that theology is a stopgap, a makeshift, a temporary expedient to be discarded at the first opportunity. (p. 78 in the 1997 edition)

As for the quote from Religion, Reason, and Revelation, Clark is criticizing James Bissett Pratt for attempting to maintain a neutral or presuppositionless definition of religious conversion. Clark’s point isn’t that Christianity and unbelief are on the same footing with respect to the validity of their presupposition. Rather, Clark’s point is simply that all assumptions must begin with some presupposition that biases all further conclusions. Clark, working within Pratt ‘s own view, shows that Pratt’s claims to neutrality or unbias, cannot be so. Consider the sentences that immediately follow Bahnsen’s selected quote:

If it is reprehensible to operate on Christian presuppositions, is it any less so on other presuppositions? The only difference would seem to be that the writer with Christian principles is probably more aware of the fact, while the scientific writer sometimes claims that he has no preconceived notions at all. In other words, Pratt—attempting to avoid the bias of a Christian view of conversion—does not seem to be aware of his own bias in assuming Ardigo’s conversion was a religious conversion and that the essence of religion is the unification of character. (p. 112 in the 2004 edition of Christian Philosophy)

Clark has not made a claim on the basis of his own presupposition, but merely demonstrated from within Pratt’s own position the absurdity of attempting a neutral or unassuming set of principles. Bahnsen does not grasp that Clark’s remarks are given in the context of an internal critique rather than an assertion of points made from his own presupposition. Far from undermining his presupposition, Clark is establishing it through a destructive critique of alternative views.

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