Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Roman Catholic Apologetics Goes Presuppositional
02/19/2007 - James SwanNever underestimate the writing output of a Catholic apologist. You can be easily buried with facts on several different topics spanning numerous pages. Most of their arguments are exercises in reasoning from the facts back to the Roman Catholic Church. One fact supports another in arguing back to the church Jesus is said to have established. The Catholic apologist will run the spectrum in facts and evidence. Once one fire is put out, multiple others will be started. Get set to read numerous pages of quotes and miscellaneous tidbits of theological information. All the proof one could ever ask for will be put forth. Every argument has a reason. That is of course, until one gets down to the presuppositional level. This is the place I've found few want to go. How is the authority of the Roman Catholic Church proved? What facts prove this?
I've wondered when Catholic apologists would take an honest look at their initial faith claims and try out presuppositional arguments. Now some of them simply don't understand this approach, as Robert Sungenis demonstrated last month (see question #7). While attending Westminster Seminary, Sungenis claims to have read many works by Cornelius Van Til (see, Patrick Madrid (ed), Surprised By Truth (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1994), p.111). Yet he still caricatured the presuppositional approach by saying, "Unfortunately, Van Til denied any recourse to Evidentialism, and he chided the Roman Catholic Church (and any Protestant, e.g., Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell) for depending on evidences to preach and convince one of the claims of Jesus Christ. Essentially, Van Til's approach was one sided, and that is usually the case for Calvinistic approaches to philosophy and Scripture."
Sungenis either misread Van Til or, has not really read his books. Contrary to Sungenis, the presuppositional approach does not deny the use of reason, argument, and evidence. These only make sense and find meaning in the context of a theistic worldview. Since this is God's world, every fact can be used as evidence to point to Him as creator. Van Til's presuppositional approach can start anywhere with any fact. Presuppositional apologetics actually gives the freedom to use every single piece of evidence existing.
On the other hand, for the last two months Art Sippo has been busy defining and defending Catholic Presuppositionalism. Normally vicious towards "Prots" (see for instance, Sippo's kind words of appreciation for my Luther research), Sippo uncharacteristically refers to Van Til's method as brilliant.
Sippo says, "As to the foundation of the Chritian [sic] religion, the ultimate presupposition is Jesus Christ himself. All authority in Christendom comes from him and ultimately our faith in God is faith in the God and Father of Jesus Christ as revealed to us by his Son." And then comes the thrust of Sippos argument: "How do we know that Catholicism is necessarily true? First of all, Catholicism derives its authority directly from Christ in unbroken succession. Jesus is the self-authenticating true human being that all men can recognize as the true head of the race. He did not write a Bible. He established an institution with ministers in a succession of authority and then he promised it the Holy Spirit as its guarantor of all truth (John 14). The entire patrimony of the Church included Scripture, Tradition, liturgy, etc. All of these communicate Christ to us in a complimentary fashion."
I actually have to thank Sippo for stating this argument. It has been my experience that Roman Catholics never admit upfront faith in Rome's authority as an unproven beginning presupposition. In dialoging with Roman Catholics I try to press this point: what evidence do you have establishing Rome's infallible authority? When asked how the Roman Catholic Church can establish her authority, they cannot be allowed to answer it is proved by the testimony of the Scriptures. An appeal to Matthew 16:18 should not serve as a basis for proof of a Roman Catholic worldview. If they do, they are not being consistent. They would be proving the authority of the Scriptures by the Church, and the authority of the Church by the Scriptures. Sippo falls into this with his appeal to John 14.
How then does one respond to Sippo's presuppositions? Van Til's arguments are very useful in dialoging with those who deny the Biblical worldview. Sippo though claims belief in Jesus Christ, and he has at least some sort of Christian worldview. Van Til originally used the phrase, transcendental reasoning in describing his apologetic approach. It is reasoning from the impossibility of the opposite. In other words, any position opposed to Christianity is impossible. This means all the facts of reality will point to the truth of the Christian worldview. It is the only worldview thatwill give coherence to the facts. The facts will all point to the necessity and reality of Christianity as a beginning presupposition. Any other worldview will not be able to make sense of the facts.
Once a person subjectively places faith in the Roman Church, simply ask them to apply their chosen authority as a template for reality. If it works, all the facts of reality will support the initial faith claims. If you read this blog regularly, you know they do not. This means you will still be involved with evaluating the evidence. But keep in mind Roman Catholics cannot prove the authority of the Roman Church. It is your task to show their choice to be Roman Catholic is a faith choice, not a decision based on evidence and reasoning. It is your task to show the impossibility of this authority giving coherence to all the facts.
Sippo's use of presuppositional apologetics proves the point that I've been making for years. The choice to become Roman Catholic is the placing of one's faith in the authority of the Church. It is a subjective fallible choice. It is a decision of the heart. For a Catholic convert, it is the giving up of Biblical and scriptural presuppositions, which do give coherence to the facts. It is the taking on of a sola ecclesia presupposition, which sinks the facts. For a closer look at a presuppositional evaluation of Roman Catholicism, see this article by Greg Bahnsen, Is Sola Scriptura a Protestant Concoction? A Biblical Defense of Sola Scriptura.