John Frame's Empty-Handed Epistemology
I find both of these features of presuppositionalism richly ironic, for not only do presuppositionalists reject whatever non-believers say about their knowing process out-of-hand, they themselves show up conspicuously empty-handed when it comes to discussing the nature of knowledge and the means of discovering and validating it. Presuppositionalists seem uniquely unprepared to answer their own favorite badgering question, “How do you know that?” when it comes to their religious claims.
In this entry I will explore an excellent example of this empty-handedness from one of presuppositionalism’s highest-profile “thinkers,” John M. Frame.
Most Christians know of the story in Genesis 22 where Abraham is instructed by the Christian god to prepare his son Isaac as a sacrifice. An investigation into what believers might call “Christian epistemology” should explore this story and its implications to discover how it would be possible for one to determine that a voice that he hears in his mind commanding him to prepare his child as a burnt offering to the bearer of that voice, was anything other than something of his own imagining. Quite simply, how did Abraham know that the voice allegedly commanding him to make preparations to slaughter his own son was the voice of the Christian god? How would one go about verifying that such a voice he hears is actually divine in origin? How would one assure that he hasn’t made any error in identifying the author of this voice or the content of its message? Since human beings are indeed fallible, and since we have the capacity to imagine all kinds of things and even mistake some things we imagine for real things, such a case demands, I would think, special scrutiny.
The story in Genesis 22 is alarming just in the fact that it does not guide believers in addressing such questions. In fact, no portion of the Christian bible, from Genesis to Revelation, presents an informed discussion of such matters. On the contrary, the story models Abraham acting in unquestioning obedience to this directive, not once wincing (let alone bristling) in reaction to it. The context of the story affirms that Abraham loved his son Isaac. And yet, when he is instructed to prepare his son as a burnt sacrifice, he asks no questions, makes no protests, offers no resistance, but instead proceeds to act on this instruction as though it were as benign as an instruction to fetch a pale of water. Clearly the attitude this story depicts towards values is horrifying. And yet, Abraham is praised in the New Testament (Hebrews 11) as a model of faith which Christian believers are expected to hold in high esteem and even emulate. Clearly the devotional program of the Christian bible requires of a man such a character as that modeled in Abraham and his indifference to his own son’s life.
In his paper Presuppositional Apologetics: An Introduction Part 1 of 2: Introduction and Creation, presuppositionalist John Frame makes a curious inquiry into this matter. He writes:
I admit that it is difficult to construe the psychology of such faith. How is it that people come to believe a Word from God which contradicts all their other normal means of knowledge? How did Abraham come to know that the voice calling him to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:1-18; cf. Heb. 11:17-19; James 2:21-24) was the voice of God? What the voice told him to do was contrary to fatherly instincts, normal ethical considerations, and even, apparently, contrary to other Words of God (Gen. 9:6).
I cannot explain the psychology here to the satisfaction of very many. In this case as in others (for we walk by faith, not by sight!) we may have to accept the fact even without an explanation of the fact. Somehow, God manages to get his Word across to us, despite the logical and psychological barriers. Without explaining how it works, Scripture describes in various ways a “supernatural factor” in divine-human communication. (a) It speaks of the power of the Word. The Word created all things (Gen. 1:3, etc.; Ps. 33:3-6; John 1:3) and directs the course of nature and history (Pss. 46:6; 148:5-8). What God says will surely come to pass (Isa. 55:11; Gen. 18:14; Deut. 18:21ff.). The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16; cf. Isa. 6:9-10; Luke 7:7ff.; Heb. 4:12). (b) Scripture also speaks of the personal power of the Holy Spirit operating with the Word (John 3:5; 1 Cor. 2:4,12ff.; 2 Cor. 3:15-18; 1 Thess. 1:5). Mysterious though the process may be, somehow God illumines the human mind to discern the divine source of the Word. We know without knowing how we know.
2. Frame then says that “we may have to accept the fact even without an explanation of the fact.” But why? On what basis? Who says we “have to accept” anything to begin with? If the “fact” in question is something I can see with my own eyes – for example, a microwave heating up a hotdog – I can accept a fact without fully understanding how it came to be. I do not know how my microwave heats a hotdog (or anything else), but I know that the hotdog is indeed very hot when I take it out after it’s been zapped in a microwave oven. I have no difficulty accepting this fact, and since the microwave oven was designed and built by human beings to do just this kind of thing, I know that an explanation – and importantly, one which does not contradict what I do know – is certainly possible.
But if someone tells me that he “knows” that he’s heard someone’s voice in his head and that the voice he has allegedly heard is that of Avalokitesvara, for example, commanding him to dumb his child into an icy lake, does John Frame really think I should just accept this claim as some sort of “fact” – even if one comes up with some kind of “explanation”? Does he think I “may have to accept” it as a fact? If so, why? Does Frame think I should accept such claims as facts “without an explanation” of what he apparently thinks I should accept as a fact? On what basis could I accept it as a fact to begin with? Blank out. Frame is saying in a rather indirect and cagey manner that he has no answer to the question he’s thrown up for consideration. And yet, he’s already “presupposed” that what is in question here is factual in nature. No justification for this move is given.
3. “Somehow,” says Frame, his god just “manages to get his Word across to us, despite the logical and psychological barriers.” But this ignores the fact that the story in Genesis 22 does not indicate that Abraham had any “psychological barriers.” Frame confuses an epistemological matter with the character of a particular individual. History shows (and Genesis is supposed to be a historical account, is it not?) that many individuals exhibit utter indifference to human values. Many eyewitness testimonies of the atrocities committed by Hitler’s, Stalin’s and Mao’s followers offer numerous cases in point. Some people have the kind of character one would need to have to carry out instructions to destroy another human being without any “psychological barriers.” Genesis depicts Abraham as someone of this very character when he unquestioningly acts upon the instruction to prepare his son as a burnt sacrifice. The question which Frame needs to address is in line with the presuppositionalists’ own “How do you know that?” kind of question: how did Abraham know that the voice he heard commanding him to sacrifice Isaac belonged to the Christian god? Already Frame is getting off-track.
As for what Frame does say regarding “how” his god “manages to get his Word across to us,” he seems to be saying that it just happens, without explanation, without our understanding of how it happens, and even though no one knows how, we just have to accept it as knowledge, even though we cannot understand it, simply because we’re told to accept it as such.
So when some Islamic terrorist reports that he has been charged by Allah to blow up a bus and kill 34 men, women and children, we are not to ask for an explanation; Allah just “manages to get His word across” to his followers, “despite the logical and psychological barriers” (even though many Muslims, like Abraham in Genesis 22, exhibit no “psychological barriers” to such behavior in the first place).
4. Frame admits that the bible does not “explain… how it works” when it comes to how one “knows” what his god wants to communicate to men, and yet he is a representative of an apologetic program which says that “only the Christian worldview can account for human knowledge.” Indeed, this is the same apologetic program which encourages its practitioners to repeat the question “How do you know that?” in reaction to virtually everything a non-believer says. This strikes me as simply hypocritical on the apologists’ part.
5. Frame appeals to the primacy of consciousness (see for example, How Theism Violates the Primacy of Existence): “The Word created all things… and directs the course of nature and history…. What God says will surely come to pass.” This is metaphysical subjectivism through and through. It affirms consciousness prior to and as the cause of everything in reality, including planets, suns, rocks, mountains, bodies of water, clouds, biological organisms, etc. This is the view that reality conforms to the dictates of consciousness.
By affirming a form of consciousness prior to and as the cause and director of reality, the view which Frame asserts here ascribes metaphysical primacy to consciousness over facts, which in epistemology can only reduce to: wishing makes it true. Any time a Christian tells an atheist that their god exists regardless of the atheist’s likes, dislikes, wishes, preferences, etc., the Christian is performatively denying the fundamental metaphysics underlying his worldview; he’s essentially saying that wishing does not make something true, all the while affirming a worldview which essentially affirms that wishing does make something true. He has clearly accepted a fundamental contradiction in his metaphysics.
Again, how does Frame know any of this? We will get to Frame’s final answer to this crucial question, a question which presuppositionalists pose to non-believers almost as a matter of canned routine, in the last line of his statement.
6. Frame says that “the gospel is ‘the power of God unto salvation’.” But does this statement do anything to explain how Abraham supposedly “know” that the voice he heard commanding him to prepare his own son as a sacrifice was the voice of the god which allegedly created the entire universe? Unfortunately it does not. Rather, it serves as mere distraction from the matter at hand. Indeed, how does John Frame know that “the gospel is ‘the power of God unto salvation’”? Frame offers no insights here, either. Indeed, this is nothing more than a religious platitude which the faithful are encouraged to recite uncritically. It is not an argument, nor does it describe a method by which knowledge can be acquired and validated. Its only purpose is to evoke unanimous nods of agreement from the already-converted. And yet, the already-converted would already have the kind of mindset modeled by the Abraham-Isaac story – one which uncritically accepts what it is told so long as the source of what is said is thought to be divine in nature. So this is unhelpful here.
7. Frame mentions how “Scripture also speaks of the personal power of the Holy Spirit operating with the Word.” This only opens the door to subjective fabrication as one’s primary form of “epistemology.” Anything one wants to believe can be attributed to “the personal power of the Holy Spirit operating with the Word.” There is no concern here for substantiating one’s beliefs on the basis of facts or correcting one’s believes because they are incompatible with facts. Clearly, facts have nothing to do with what Frame wants to accept as “knowledge,” otherwise Frame should be citing facts to support his position. Unfortunately he does not. Facts do not play a guiding role in religious epistemology; they only serve as stage props and can be interpreted however the religious believer wants to interpret them, so long as they can be construed in such a manner as to agree with and/or confirm the believer’s confessional investment.
8. As many apologists do when pressed on a matter they are called to explain, Frame makes an appeal to “mystery,” saying specifically: “Mysterious though the process may be, somehow God illumines the human mind to discern the divine source of the Word.” Then John Frame should be able to “illumine” us if he has been so “illumined.” But John Frame doesn’t illumine us or anyone else. He’s essentially affirming an epistemology of “we just know” without explaining, understanding or knowing how one allegedly comes to what is called “knowledge.” He’s no answering the question “How do you know that?”
Where appeal to “the personal power of the Holy Spirit” opens wide the door to subjective fabrication, the appeal to “mystery” here is merely a doorstop ensuring that that door never closes. Subjective fabrication is guaranteed by such formulae to be a live option for any believer. Can’t explain what you claim to be the case? Just appeal to “the personal power of the Holy Spirit” and say it’s all a “mystery.” That’s supposed to get you off the hook of “How do you know that?” Meanwhile, insist that it’s true and that others accept it as such in spite of such non-explanations. That’s the Christian view of “knowledge.” It does not lead to understanding. It leads to discounting the mind altogether.
9. Finally, Frame throws up his hands in utter ignorance and confesses, “We know without knowing how we know.” Unfortunately for Frame, this only means he cannot show that what he claims to know is actually true. Since he says “we know without knowing how we know,” he does not know the epistemological steps by which he (supposedly) came to the “knowledge” he claims to have. And if, when called to give an account of his knowledge, he appeals to “mystery” and “the personal power of the Holy Spirit” – something we can only imagine, then he offers no objective basis for any confidence that what he claims is true. We are wholly justified in dismissing it as subjective rambling.
10. Frame nowhere considers the possibility of supernatural deception, even though this is a notion which Christianity itself affirms as a real possibility, going back to the days of Paul’s missions in Corinth and elsewhere. This is a problem which today’s believers – like John Frame – prefer not to discuss (see for example here).
Now, notice something very important in all of this:
At no point does Frame raise any precaution against confusing something one may merely be imagining with the “voice” one might attribute to the Christian god.
Broadly speaking, what Frame offers here is nothing more than insulation for those who are already in the fold. He does not point to any facts which could substantiate the view that Abraham correctly identified whatever “voice” he supposedly heard (if there were any such facts, wouldn’t Frame hasten to point them out to us?), and what he does offer can be used in justifying the claim that any “voice” one claims to have “heard” in his head was the voice of the Christian god, or any other deity one imagines for that matter. At no point does Frame explain how one can reliably distinguish between a “voice” one thinks he’s hearing from a supernatural realm, from something he may merely be imagining. It is as though Frame “presupposes” that the imagination either does not exist, or that it simply could have no role in such pious matters. Either way, the mere fact that men have the ability to imagine things is kept safely out of view and therefore free to play the role religion requires of it.
Apologists need to recognize that, by virtue of what their worldview teaches, they are implicitly claiming that they have omniscience and infallibility on their side. And yet, we find when they are asked to explain certain knowledge claims they have made, they have nothing informative to offer. In the heat of debate, apologists very often resort to the “How do you know that?” question. And very often, no matter what facts I as a non-believer point to in support of my position, and no matter what steps I list in arriving at the knowledge that I claim to have, I am met over and over again with the repetitive refrain, “How do you know that?”
And yet here Frame is essentially admitting that Christians have no answer to this very question when it is trained on their worldview claims, even though they’re supposed to have omniscience and infallibility on their side. It’s quite ironic: I can give an account for my position, my views, my knowledge, my standard, but Christians tell me that “only the Christian worldview can account for human knowledge” while their credentialed theologians concede that they “know without knowing how [they] know.” It’s a windbag blowing bluster behind a smokescreen.
All of this shows, without a doubt (and, as John Robbins might have put it, “without a prayer”), that presuppositionalists can “dish it out,” but they can’t take it.
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
by Dawson Bethrick