Thomas Reid’s Common Sense Philosophy Part 5: The Implications for Doing Apologetics

I hope that the points which follow will serve to place Reid, and by implication, Old Princeton, in a more objective and favorable light, and as a consequence, help Reformed Christians recover confidence in the proper use of Christian evidences when engaging in the apologetic enterprise.

First, Reid was a Christian philosopher whose necessary and contingent first principles and common sense notions of the truth of the external world and the importance of ordinary facts have profound theological implications. Reid’s Christian commitments are well worth noting. Throughout his writings, Reid makes consistent appeals to God as the author of human nature, and without whom, the external world and human nature would not exist. Ontologically, we must assume God’s existence as the basis for all things. Epistemologically we must start with ourselves, assume the certainty of the external world, and operate with the awareness that we are creatures with agentic powers. Reid is right, I think, when he argues that this is how ordinary people actually live their daily lives.

There is in Reid’s common sense epistemology the basis for an effective transcendental argument. When non-Christians argue against the Christian truth claim, they must invoke Reid’s common sense first principles (or categories much like them) to argue against Christianity. How is such a thing even possible on non-Christian presuppositions—especially those of materialism? How does logic work in a chance universe with no creator or intelligent designer?

Several additional points are worth making. Plantinga frames Reid’s first principles in terms of belief in God as properly basic. If we can believe that other minds exist without any reasons whatsoever—a belief we cannot prove—on what basis then is belief in God declared irrational? Plantinga uses this unprovable starting point to argue against foundationalism (i.e., the notion that we must have sufficient evidence which proves the validity of our starting point). But is not Reid’s soft foundationalism much better? When we seek to get behind our common sense first principles, we immediately encounter the God who made us capable of using them.

I am also of the opinion that Reid’s doctrine of first principles helps clear up the primary weakness permeating Van Til’s version of presuppositionalism. Van Til’s apologetic is built upon the conflation of the order of knowing (epistemology) and the order of being (ontology). I agree fully with Van Til, when he insists we could know nothing properly if there were not a God who created all things and made us as his image-bearers. Van Til, however, insists that a truly Christian epistemology begins with the ectypal knowledge of God given in and through God’s self-revelation (Scripture).

But this raises two seemingly insurmountable problems. The first is that it is psychologically impossible to begin the knowing process outside of ourselves, apart from any prior self-consciousness. Only God can start the knowing process with himself in this sense. As his creature, and despite Van Tilian protests to the contrary, I simply cannot start where Van Tilians insist that I must (with the revelation of God). As a creature who receives this revelation externally, I can only begin with self-awareness, knowledge of the world around me, and of my own agentic powers. Second, unless the knowledge of God which Van Til insists upon is innate and hard-wired within me (as a sort of Kantian category), and is available and clear to me from the first moments of my self-consciousness, I need all such external revelation confirmed as revelation coming from God. Descartes’ ugly question inevitably resurfaces at this point. “How do I know this revelation is from God and not from the devil?” My own doubts will emerge as well. “How do I know this knowledge is from God and not the product of my own vain imagination?” All people are born liars after all (Psalm 116:11). Completing religious claims also surface. “Why the Bible and not the Book of Mormon, or the Koran?”

At this point, it is vital to distinguish general from special revelation. Paul speaks of God’s revelation in nature as plain to all (Romans 1:19–20) as well as God’s law as written upon the human heart (Romans 2:14–15). This is general revelation. Furthermore, we bear the divine image and retain the sense of divinity. But does such knowledge of God given through the natural order include knowledge of the Trinity, the person of Jesus and his redemptive work on my behalf? No. The nature of God and his saving work in Christ is revealed to me externally in God’s word, which is the record of his redemptive words and deeds (special revelation). As B.B. Warfield once put it when addressing this very issue, “it is easy, of course, to say that a Christian man must take his standpoint not above the Scriptures, but in the Scriptures. He very certainly must. But surely he must first have the Scriptures, authenticated to him as such, before he can take his standpoint in them.”1

As Van Til made plain his allegiance in this regard, declaring “I have chosen the position of Abraham Kuyper,”2 so too, I must declare that I have chosen the position of B. B. Warfield.

Reid does not ask us to begin with a theory of ideas or a priori categories (as with Kant), or even by presupposing the entire system of Christian doctrine (Kuyper, Bavinck, and Van Til). Instead, Reid asks us to start with an epistemological method, or better, with a particular kind of awareness of the external world and how it works common to all. When John Frame raises the presuppositionalist challenge that “`starting with the self’ leaves open the question of what criterion of truth the self should acknowledge, so `starting with reason’ leaves open the question of what criterion of truth human reason ought to recognize,”3 Reid would likely answer, we utilize “those criteria [first principles] we are born with, given us by our Creator.” These criteria are not a matter of a choice of a priori interpretive categories, but rather an appeal to recognize those rational faculties with which we are born, and which we spontaneously utilize.

Embracing Reid’s common sense first principles allows us to begin the knowing process with human consciousness, while at the same time asserting that such would not be possible apart from a creator. This is, I think, a healthy corrective to Van Til’s presuppositionalism.

Second, although there are several areas in Reid’s thought which orthodox Reformed Christians might find problematic—especially Reid’s endorsement of natural theology, along with the telling absence of any discussion of the effects of Adam’s fall upon human nature—we do not need to follow Reid in every area of his thought to appreciate and draw upon his insights regarding first principles and the related common sense tests for truth. As Paul Helm points out, there is nothing intrinsic in Reid’s common sense philosophy which is antithetical to Reformed doctrine.4 Whatever theological weaknesses may exist in Reid’s overall philosophy can be mitigated by considering how the Old Princetonians (especially Warfield) were able to utilize SCSR as modified in light of the Reformed doctrine of the noetic effects of sin, and the necessity of regeneration as prior to faith.

Warfield was, to my mind, on the right track when he argued that the certitude of the truth of Christianity “is at bottom nothing other than the conviction that God is in Christ reconciling the world with himself . . . . It is only by the direct act of faith laying hold of Jesus as redeemer that we may attain either conviction of the truth of the Christian religion or the assurance of salvation.” Such a faith is not a blind or ungrounded epistemological leap into the dark. “For ourselves,” Warfield writes, “we confess we can conceive of no act of faith in any kind which is not grounded in evidence: faith is a specific form or persuasion or conviction, and all persuasion or conviction is grounded in evidence.”5

We can hear the loud echo from Thomas Reid in Warfield’s conception that faith requires sufficient grounds in evidence. But this echo also requires additional biblical qualification. The reason why people do not believe the gospel is not that there are insufficient reasons given by God to provide grounds for faith. God gives evidences which meet the needs of our common sense tests for truth—Jesus was raised from the dead, or he wasn’t. This claim is intelligible to Christians and non-Christians alike.

The reason why people reject the gospel despite sufficient grounds to believe it, is because of human sin—a point not directly addressed by Reid. The biblical record is crystal clear that all the members of Adam’s fallen race inevitably suppress God’s truth in unrighteousness (to use Paul’s language). Like Reid, Warfield believed that all humans possess the innate capacity to believe the gospel because the evidence demonstrates that Christianity is objectively true. But Warfield also understood full well the damage wrought upon us by the Fall. Warfield speaks to this directly when he describes the pre-fall consciousness of humanity as reflecting a “glad and loving trust” in the Creator. After Adam’s fall, human consciousness was distorted to the point that it now reflects a profound sense of distrust, unbelief, fear, and despair in relation to the Creator. As a consequence, we sinful humans no longer possess the subjective ability to respond to Christian truth claims in faith.6

The problem is not a lack of evidence for the truth of Christianity, but rather a universal and sinful unwillingness to believe that the facts of God’s revelation which are in themselves worthy of our trust. It is the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work to give the sinful human heart a new power to respond to the grounds of faith given by God (i.e., Christian evidences), which are sufficient to persuade anyone and already present in the mind.7

The subjective certainty of faith of which Scripture repeatedly speaks therefore must be supplied by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the elect, through the preaching of the gospel, a message grounded in the God-given evidences for the truth of Christianity. The Holy Spirit creates this subjective ability not through additional evidences for the truth of Christianity (as though the evidences God has already given us are insufficient), but through a supernatural act of new birth. People who are dead in sin will not believe the gospel promise until made alive. Yet as Warfield reminds us, “the Holy Spirit does not produce faith without grounds.”8 These grounds include those Christian evidences associated with the preaching of the gospel.

Third, Reid’s common sense tests for truth fit quite nicely with the kind of truth claims the biblical writers actually make when they use arguments from continency and causality (God made the world) as does Paul in Acts 14:15–17. Reid’s stress upon the objectivity of facts (grounded in our direct perception of the external world) seems to square with Paul’s appeal to Jesus’ resurrection as confirmation of the truth gospel he preached to the Athenians (Acts 17:31). The biblical writers never seek to prove the existence of God, although they do point out that God is the ultimate cause of all things and the Author (to use Reid’s term) of human nature. Paul is not shy about telling the Athenians gathered on Mars Hill that one of their own poets had declared, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Neither Paul, nor any other biblical writer for that matter, asks his audience to “assume Christian presuppositions for the sake of argument,” so that they can understand the content of what is being proclaimed. Paul’s appeal is to a God whom his audiences already know, and to a knowledge they presently possess but which is sinfully suppressed. When Paul proclaims that the resurrection (as an historical event) is the proof that his preaching about Jesus is true, Paul need not explain what he means, nor defend the possibility of miracles. It is a very common sense kind of claim to preach that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and raised bodily from the dead three days later. Everyone who heard Paul preach—without prior critical reflection or philosophical sophistication—grasps the significance of that claim.

Impossible as it may seem, if Jesus was raised bodily, then Paul and his gospel are vindicated. His message is to be believed and embraced. His claims can be rejected, or dismissed, only upon on self-consciously prejudicial grounds. People do not like the implications of Paul’s preaching precisely because they do understand the all-encompassing nature of Paul’s truth claim. People, then, as now, do not like to acknowledge they are guilty before God and in desperate need of a Savior. They may reject Paul’s gospel, but Jesus’ tomb is still empty. The proof which God has given still stands over them like the proverbial “Sword of Damocles.” This fact alone establishes the truth of Paul’s claim and will convict those who reject it until they die, or they manage to shove it from their consciences, or until they embrace it.

Fourth, Reid’s notion that common sense is universal gives us an important way to establish nonneutral common ground with non-Christians. Instead of the us (regenerate) against them (unregenerate) a priori categories, Reid begins with universal common ground—the external world and everything which happens in it. But the non-Christian must live and operate in a world which cries out that it was created by God and we as creatures can navigate that world only because this is how God made us. There is common ground (as Paul was able to find with Jews and Greeks) but no neutrality (also seen in Paul’s direct challenge to Greek pagans). This opens wide the range of effective apologetic arguments.

Conclusion

Although long overlooked, Thomas Reid’s philosophy of common sense offers a very useful way of establishing non-neutral common ground directly within universal human nature. This is important in an age of supposed self-authenticating religious truth claims such as ours. Transcendental arguments such as Reid’s are especially helpful because they force non-Christians to justify their arguments against Christianity. From where do these arguments against Christianity come, and how can they be justified? Non-Christians struggle to answer these questions. Reid gives us a helpful and practical way to exploit this weakness.

Reid’s notion of truth as objective and immediate (i.e., apart from a priori categories and “ideal theories”) clearly echoes the approach taken by the Apostle Paul and provides an epistemological footing for the chief argument in defense of Christianity, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For those who wish to integrate apologetic arguments into evangelistic contexts, Reid offers a suitable (and non-philosophical) epistemological justification for Christian truth claims. Should someone predict their own resurrection and then rise again (Jesus), the only conclusion is that proclaimed by Paul; God has given us proof, proof which is grounded in the facts of revelation (Acts 17:31). The declaration “He is Risen!” requires nothing but common sense to fully understand. But only the Holy Spirit can enable those who understand the claim to truly believe that Jesus was raised for their own justification (Romans 4:25).

Notes

  1. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “Introductory Note,” to Francis Beattie’s Apologetics, Vol. 1 (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee on Publications, 1903), 98–99; note: this same statement appears almost word for word in Warfield, “Review” of Bavinck’s De Zekerheid des Geloofs,” 115.
  2. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), 264–265.
  3. Frame, “Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic,” in The Westminster Theological Journal, Volume XLVII, Fall 1985, number 2, 285–287.
  4. Paul Helm,”Thomas Reid, Calvinsim, and Common Sense,” in Hendrik Hart, Johan Van Der Hoeven and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds. Rationality in the Calvinian Tradition (Lanham: University Press in America, 1983), 86–88.
  5. Warfield, “Review” of Bavinck’s De Zekerheid des Geloofs,” 112–113.
  6. Warfield, “Review” of Bavinck’s De Zekerheid des Geloofs, 116.
  7. Warfield, “Review” of Bavinck’s De Zekerheid des Geloofs, 115.
  8. Warfield, “Review” of Bavinck’s De Zekerheid des Geloofs, 115.

©Kim Riddlebarger. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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Posted by Kim Riddlebarger | Tuesday, December 5, 2023 | Categorized Apologetics, Biography | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Kim Riddlebarger

Kim is a graduate of Simon Greenleaf School of Law (M.A.), Westminster Seminary California (M.A., M. Div.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). From 1995–2020 he was senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Anaheim. He was a long-time co-host of the White Horse Inn radio show and is currently Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Follow his work at The Riddleblog.

3 comments

  1. This is an outstanding article and it summarizes my view of apologetics. One quibble: I don’t understand Dr Riddelbarger’s reservation about natural theology at the end, when he notes possible Reformed objections, unless he is talking about (post)modern Reformed objections of the last generation.

    • Jacob:

      I am not referring to my own views on natural theology (as a subset of general revelation), but to the opposition to the use of the term natural theology among the Reformed in earlier evidentialist/presuppositionist debates–especially when Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley’s volume Classical Apologetics was published in 1984 (when I was at WSC studying under John Frame). Yikes, that was nearly 40 years ago . . .

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