A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Paul Wilkinson
In an era of specialization and popular, trivia-style understandings of knowledge, Jeffrey D. Johnson’s The Absurdity of Unbelief offers an apologetic that incorporates wholistic thinking. In that sense, it is plenty countercultural, not only in its analysis of sin as humanity’s fundamental problem, but in its insistence that thinking in terms of a worldview or complete philosophical system is important. And therein lies the subtle beauty of the work, the same beauty that permeates all presuppositional apologetics: Draw people’s attention to the fact that they are living according to a worldview, whether admitted or not, and that, if it is other than the Christian worldview, then they are living a contradiction. In The Absurdity of Unbelief, you’ll find a sound presuppositionalist apologetic with echoes of evidentialism.
From Aristotelian Unmoved Movers and Plotinian Emanators to Heideggerian Existentialism to Nietzschean Nihilism to Eastern Pantheism/polytheism, Johnson offers a wide-ranging look at the possibilities for grounding our understanding of God, logic, and morality. He deals well with some of the major thinkers and major moves within each system, and he seeks to lay out their core assumptions and consequences with accuracy so that no straw men appear in the text. Then, he defends the consistency of the Christian worldview in meeting the challenge.
Core Assumptions of Worldview
One hallmark and timely message of this book is that the Christian faith is not irrational; that is, belief in Christianity is not a blind leap into the unknown, that “faith is not a mixture of certainty and doubt.” (35) He argues for the rationality of God’s promises, rationality in God’s work of faith, and rationality in the universe God created as a trusted reality. And in classic presuppositionalist fashion, Johnson ultimately concludes that “though faith in Christ is not blind, illogical, or without empirical evidences, it does go against one’s self-centeredness.” (53) Sin lies behind all the inconsistency of people’s lives as they violate their fundamental assumptions about the world in order to live rationally in the world, all the while presupposing the God of the Bible without submitting to that truth.
A core teaching of Johnson’s methodology is the unavoidable dependence humanity has upon self-evident truths regarding objective morality, logic, and God. He references Calvin’s notion of sensus divinitatis in suggesting that God is the greatest of these three truths and that God supports the other two. In utilizing argument (logic) and in making moral distinctions (objective morality), one must presuppose God. Johnson concludes, “The laws of ethical living (morality) and the laws of thinking (logic) are not social constructs or abstract principles independent of God. God is not underneath the law. He is the law. That is, the law is a reflection of His moral essence. The laws of logic and morality only exist because God exists.” (65)
After laying a groundwork for what a worldview is and how a worldview plays out, Johnson turns his attention to a critique of all non-Christian worldviews as inconsistent in their effort to anchor and frame the fundamentals of a worldview. He covers a plethora of them, one-by-one, but ultimately places them in one of three broad categories: naturalism, impersonal-supernaturalism, or personal-supernaturalism.
Johnson argues that naturalism fails on three fronts. First, naturalism cannot anchor knowledge if it is accompanied by determinism. If determinism is true, then even if one’s belief might be correct, it is only happy coincidence, indifferent to whether an argument or line of evidence could truly undergird the belief. Determinism also runs afoul of the self-evident freedom we generally claim to possess. Second, if naturalism begets materialism, as it often does, then one loses any possibility for a transcendent, objective moral lawgiver. Thus, one lands in a relativistic ethic which violates the self-evident truths to which so many ascribe. Third, naturalism makes the blunder of putting too much weight on a methodology. Just because science is premier at describing natural phenomena, it would be pure folly to conclude that the naturalistic realm is all that exists. Edward Feser demonstrates this well in his critique of Alex Rosenberg, claiming that it would be absurd to conclude that metals are the only substances that exist based on the incredible ability of a metal detector to locate metals!
Impersonal-supernaturalism would consist of those views which believe in an unknowable God. Among these systems, Johnson includes most eastern traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Spinozian pantheism, and panentheism. He argues that an unknowable God is a self-referentially defeating God. If God cannot communicate truth to creatures, then the objective ground for knowledge and ethics disappears. Thus, the self-evident truths by which those in these systems live must be lived in contradiction to the systems.
Finally, the non-Christian personal-supernaturalistic systems of Judaism and Islam fail. The main line of argument is that plurality within the Godhead is needed if God is to be essentially loving, communal, personal, etc. Thus, any non-Trinitarian system will fall short of those essential attributes leaving self-evident moral standards as ideas in God’s mind rather than fundamental realities in God’s nature. Moreover, Johnson believes that only the Trinitarian God of the Bible can make sense of a God who acts immanently in the world while remaining transcendent from the world. Essentially, the Creator-creature distinction coupled with God’s free choice to create keep God transcendent while this same God interacts personally with that creation throughout history.
Christianity is Consistent
Once Johnson has logically critiqued each of the non-Christian systems, he seeks to argue for Christianity, which is both coherent and able to anchor God, logic, and morality. As mentioned above, the echoes of evidentialism come full force as Johnson employs history, experience, and revelation as rational evidences warranting regard for Christianity. He shows that Christianity is not self-referentially defeating as it overcomes all of the shortcomings of the other systems while also making good sense out of the self-evident truths by which we all live.
In the end, Johnson is formulating what has traditionally been called the Transcendental Argument, at the core of presuppositional apologetics. Many times, this so-called argument is more of a statement than a proof, but Johnson goes a bit further in attempting to identify and establish the necessary conditions for a consistent worldview. He argues for 1. the necessity of divine communication, 2. from a personal, trinitarian God, 3. with rationally capable beings, 4. ontologically distinct from that God, but who are made in God’s image. Johnson’s argument, then, is that without these four conditions, one cannot hold a consistent worldview. Even if such a statement proves to be true, then it would not prove the truth of Christianity, rather it would prove that Christianity is the only worldview that is consistent. (Consistency alone does not equal truth.) Johnson seemingly recognizes this fact, which is why he spends numerous pages offering evidence for the truth of Christianity from history, revelation, and experience.
Even without the form of a classical proof, it is encouraging to find a presuppositionalist apologist framing the Transcendental Argument more in the likeness of an argument. Thus, a brief comment about each of Johnson’s four conditions for coherent worldview foundations is warranted: Divine communication is necessary because God remains the only source for objective morality which needs to be shown to humanity. Even if moral conscience is a built-in package (cf. Romans 2) as opposed to observable natural law, then it would remain a sort of communication. The Trinitarian God provides the foundations for the essential attributes of God, like love and personhood, while also satisfying the classical “one and the many” problem. (The problem of the “one and the many” is the conundrum of having to choose either unity or diversity as primary. We perceive various material, ethical, etc. distinctions in the world: Is that all there is or is there something that unites all of reality?) The Creator-creature distinction is significant because personhood is needed for communication and pantheism, which Johnson argues is the logical outcome of unitarian theistic systems, makes God equivalent to non-sentient material substances. Lastly, because humanity is created in the likeness of God, communication with God becomes possible.
The Shortcomings of Presuppositional Approaches
Even with the fair representations of each system that Johnson offers, one would have liked to have seen some of the more powerful arguments of contemporary thinkers represented. I am in no way suggesting that Johnson treats any view unfairly or builds straw men; rather I’m suggesting that Michael Ruse and Erik Wielenberg offer a better naturalistic option for morality than Dawkins, and that William Rowe offers a robust problem of evil. Wrestling with these kinds o formulations would make Johnson’s work even more powerful than it otherwise is.
Johnson’s argument that Judaism and Islam, as unitarian monotheistic systems, necessarily reduce to pantheism was odd. He ties the Jewish and Muslim understanding of deity to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and argues, rightly, that no differentiation can exist in such a deity. Without differentiation, there can exist no change whatever, in motion or in emotion, resulting in a deity who cannot act in the world and cannot issue commands, decrees, and the like. While such realities are certainly true of Aristotle’s deity, one does not see such consequences in the God of the Hebrew Bible. Johnson does well to quote Maimonides about the Jewish understanding of God’s impassibility, but such is just one conception of the Jewish understanding as certainly not all Jewish scholars would render God impassible. Granted, Johnson’s point is that Maimonides is the scholar who is functioning logically, yet I don’t see why impassibility necessarily lands one into pantheism. Maimonides himself believed in God as Creator distinct from creation, and Aquinas, who pulls from both Maimonides and Aristotle, argued for God’s impassibility without being a pantheist. He simply argued that possibility means that nothing can act upon God externally, that is, that God can act for Himself and from Himself, but that nothing can act upon Him.
The purpose of the preceding paragraph is to suggest that presuppositionalist approaches have a tendency to leave a good deal of meat on the table. To simply grab an Aristotelian Jewish scholar and suggest that necessarily unitarian systems lead to pantheism is insufficient to make the point. Moreover, Johnson had already levied a much more powerful argument against Judaism and Islam, in that unitarian systems make it very difficult to understand how God can be essentially loving, essentially personal, essentially communal, etc. Thus, in an attempt to reduce all unitarian systems to a singular reality, presuppositionalist apologetics miss the mark on alternative variations of some systems.
The downside to the presuppositional approach is that it remains impotent to actually “prove” anything. Instead of offering rational justification or warranted evidence for believing in some truth, the presuppositional approach seeks to obliterate all contenders to truth leaving the thinker with a singular option. Again, Johnson recognizes this and does offer, in the end, some evidences on behalf of Christianity. Nevertheless, a necessary byproduct of the presuppositionalist approach is reductionist thinking, which, at times betrays the beauty mentioned at the beginning of this review: wholistic thinking. In order to fit every system into base axiomatic categories (God, logic, and ethics for Johnson), those categories, while fundamental, must remain incredibly broad.
Because of the wide range of possible questions within each category, certain answers remain unearthed. Thus, for the sake of being comprehensive, the presuppositional approach often unintentionally leaves significant concepts off the table.
While Johnson does a fine job defeating naturalism and all of his points are valid, some serious critiques are lacking. One of the most devastating undercutting defeaters of naturalism is Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. But, for that argument to be understood, one must unpack Plantinga’s four-part epistemological system—1. proper functioning cognitive equipment, 2. operating according to a design plan, 3. in a congenial epistemic environment, 4. aimed at truth production. With that system in place, because natural selection is not aimed at truth production, then evolution does not produce cognitive faculties that are to be trusted. Truth, it turns out, is not necessary for survival. (Incidentally, Plantinga’s primary argument appears in Where the Conflict Really Lies, which is cited later in Johnson’s book with respect to reason and evidence supporting the Christian Worldview.)
It would also be helpful to have more a more “fleshed out” worldview framework. Instead of limiting a worldview to God, logic, and morality, a framework like the one used by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, which focuses on origins, morality, meaning, and destiny. Other worldview frameworks might introduce questions like, “What’s the problem with the world and what is the solution?” or “What is humanity?” If the presuppositionalist is willing to expand slightly the range of their basic assumptions, then they might have both a more pointed and more wholistic effect.
As mentioned above, to Johnson’s credit, he seems to recognize that the Transcendental Argument does not decisively prove Christianity or the Christian God. The Transcendental Argument, at best rebuts all non-Christian worldviews as a function of their incoherence. And that accomplishment is nothing to scoff at, but more is needed for a positive defense of Christianity. For that reason, it was refreshing to see Johnson offer various positive evidences and support for Christianity.
The presuppositional approach is difficult in this contemporary era precisely because grand, philosophical systems are not en vogue. The spirit of this age is specialization in narrow fields which contributes greatly to the corpus of knowledge, yet undermines the contemporary mind’s acumen at categorizing, framing, and relating that knowledge. Johnson’s immediate objective is to offer a fresh, contemporary, presuppositionalist apologetic couched in worldview. While he does that, he also provides a challenge to believer and unbeliever alike to think holistically about life—a challenge to really live out one’s beliefs, whatever they may be. And an even more significant challenge concludes the book—a call to surrender to salvation offered through the person and work of Jesus.
Paul Wilkinson is a discipleship group minister at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, TN.