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Paradigm Shifting and the Apologetics Debate

By Robert M. Price


Of late, a new piece of jargon has intruded itself into discussions of theological and religious language. The newcomer is the “paradigm.” One may find this concept, borrowed from the philosophy of science, in theologi­cal works as far removed from each other as Thomas Torrance’s Theologi­cal Science and Charles Kraft's Christianity in Culture. It seems safe to suggest that the recent currency of this term and its attendant concept is in large part due to the efforts of Thomas S. Kuhn. Though Kuhn himself is a philosopher of science, the relevance of his work for other fields such as theology has become apparent. We would like to suggest the utility of his theory for the field of evangelical apologetics. More specifically, his schema of “paradigm-shifting" will be shown to provide the key for grasping the differences in the evidentialist vs. presuppositionalist debate in apologetics.

In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn takes issue with the common conception that scientific advancement has proceeded mainly by way of "new discoveries.” In fact, really new data is relatively seldom discovered. Scientific progress has more to do with scientists coming to formulate new ways of construing the same old information, new keys to solve the puzzles presented by the data. One such paradigm will be accepted by scientists as long as it seems to make plausible sense of most of the evidence. Only when the paradigm starts to appear inadequate to the task of explaining this or that phenomenon do scientists begin looking for an alternative gestalt. The new paradigm will seek to incorporate much of the explicative power of the old, yet starting from at least a slightly different point, so as to deal plausibly with more of the hitherto-troublesome data. When the cogency and comprehensiveness of a new proffered paradigm becomes evident, a "paradigm- shift" occurs. The new model for construing the data becomes the basis for the next stage of theorizing and research. Of course the likelihood is that it, too, will be superseded in time.

To give a famous example seen through the lenses provided by Kuhn, we will look at the contest between the geocentric paradigm of Ptolemy and the heliocentric paradigm of Copernicus. Ptolemy's model of the planetary system functioned well enough to predict the motion of the (apparently earth­ orbiting) planets, but it ran into trouble when it came to the mysterious retrograde motion of the planets. In order for the geocentric model to predict accurately these erratic movements (hitherto considered to be the "free will" of the planets), Ptolemaic astronomers had to postulate myriad series of "epicycles,” or wheels within hypothetical wheels on which the planets turned. Copernicus found that the whole system might be simplified by postulating that the sun, not the earth, was the center of planetary orbit. This way all the epicycles disappeared.

Eventually Copernicus’s view became dominant. It wasn't that Copernicus had somehow “discovered” the earth to be orbiting the sun instead of the other way around. Such a thing would have been (and probably still is) incapable of observation. Rather, he merely formulated a new gestalt for the data which made its explanation less problematic, more natural, than before. And this is basically the way all scientific progress comes about, by a "conversion”1 from one paradigm to another.

But there is an important tension, often unnoticed, in Kuhn's schema. Are paradigms self-sealing? That is, do they carry their own criteria of plausibility of explanation? Mustn't they, if they are truly comprehensive systems for understanding data (so that only in light of them are the data "data for" anything)? But if they do, then how is any shift from one para­digm to another ever possible? In terms of our example, why should Ptolemaists have felt ashamed of all those epicycles? Given the fundamental postulate, geocentricity, there could be nothing embarrassing or implausible about the resulting complexities. Why should not things be complex? If the paradigm itself carries its own criteria of plausibility, then any explanation assigned to “problematic” (or “anomalous”) data must ipso facto be plausible.

But of course, the shift did occur. This implies that paradigms do not contain within themselves their own criteria of plausibility. And if they do not, they must be seen as sub-paradigms, or subsets of a larger, all­ comprehensive paradigm. This super-paradigm will be the field of presuppositions in which scientific thought occurs. It will include criteria by which given sub-paradigms (geocentricity or heliocentricity, Einsteinian or Newtonian physics, Big Bang or steady-state cosmologies) can be preferred to one another. Included among these criteria would probably be something like “economy and inductivemess of explicability of the data.” Such criteria will be the arbiters of which paradigm makes “better sense” of the evidence. They will tell which sense is the “better” sense.

This issue, merely implicit in Kuhn's discussion, is raised explicitly (albeit in different terminology) in the long-standing debate between "evidentialist" apologists (Clark Pinnock, John Warwick Montgomery, Josh  McDowell, etc.) on the one hand, and their "presuppositionalist" rivals (Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, etc.) on the other. In this context, the issue is that of "common ground," i.e., does any exist between believers and non-believers? Evidentialists build their whole enterprise on a positive answer to this question. Indeed, they say, there can properly be no apologetics at all unless some commonly-acknowledged criteria exist, whereby the evangelical position may be rendered probable or compelling to the fair-minded non-believer. Before examining the presuppositionalist objection to this belief, let us analyze the evidentialist position further in the light of Kuhn's categories. In effect, the evidentialists assume that they and their imagined non-Christian partners in dialogue both assent to a "super-paradigm" of criteria for plausibility and explicability. The same kinds of grounds will determine which is the "better" sense made of the evidence. By their amassing of evidence, what McDowell, Montgomery, Pinnock, et. al., seek to do is to show that the secular naturalists' paradigm cannot adequately (plausibly) explain "anomalous data" like, e.g., the empty tomb. This is the point of the stock rehearsals of how "no explanation fits the facts of Easter Morning as well as the Resurrection does." The naturalists' explanations "demand more faith than the Resurrection itself" (Montgomery)2 That is, the “Swoon theory," the “wrong tomb theory," etc., are like epicycles. They are implausible. What makes them implausible? A common set of criteria including the notion that eyewitness reporting is valid, that crucified but surviving men are not likely to be able to roll away stones and stagger into Jerusalem, etc. So no matter how much the skeptic cherishes his naturalistic paradigm, he really should admit its inadequacy to explain the evidence of Easter Morning. He should convert his paradigm (and with it, in this case, his eternal destiny).

Presuppositionalists, of whom we may take Van Til as the paramount example, repudiate this whole approach. There can be no common ground, he insists, because of the "noetic effects of the fall.” It is a fundamental mistake to imagine that (Christ- rejecting) unregenerate persons can perceive enough of the facts correctly to be led from them (the common ground) to faith in Christ.3 No, “all things hold together in Him” (Colossians 1:17). Since every single fact is to be properly construed only in the light of faith in Christ, then any perception by a Christ-rejecting (or Christ-blind) person is a misapprehension, even a delusion. Leaving aside the fact that this is pretty much the same rationale that has led historically to the branding and treatment of religious dissidents as insane, we will proceed to develop our interpretation of this view in Kuhn’s terms. Van Til is essentially arguing that paradigms are self-sealing. They must carry their own criteria for plausibility within themselves, so that whatever explanation assigned to a datum is ipso facto plausible and natural. The apologetical / epistemological meaning of this is that religious certainty may be achieved only if it is defined into the system from the start. One can never reason his way to certain faith in Christ; he may only have certainty if he begins by defining Christ (the Logos) as the ground of reason. Then by definition faith in Christ is not only "a reasonable option," it becomes the only rational option. The evidentialist approach is unsatisfactory at least partially because it makes the Christ-Logos posterior rather than anterior to the reasoning process. In Kuhn's terms, evidential apologetics makes the evangelical Christian sub­paradigm subordinate to the larger paradigm of neutral, common criteria. And if it does this, then the same bridge from one sub-paradigm to the evangelical one, could as easily one day be the bridge to still a third sub­paradigm. The facts might lead the Christian elsewhere. Theoretically, this possibility must be left open. And what kind of faith-certitude would this be?

Evidentialists like Pinnock reply that such absolute theoretical certainty is neither available nor necessary to live any other area of life, so why here? We can have practical certainty. As Gordon J. Allport observes,  

The believer is often closer to the agnostic than we think. Both, with equal candor, may concede that the nature of Being cannot be known [with absolute certainty]; but the believer, banking on a probability. . . finds that the energy engendered and the values conserved prove the superiority of affirmation over indecisiveness.4 

However, as full of common sense as the evidentialist position seems to be, the presuppositionalist critique is still a good one. Acquaintance with the literature of evidentialist apologetics makes it clear that their religious faith is more certain than is allowed by their common-ground approach with its inherent provisionality. For instance, John Warwick Montgomery writes of the doctrine of the Trinity, "I believe it with all my heart. I believe it because... it offers the best available ‘construct' or 'model' for interpret­ing the biblical descriptions of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”5 Can one appropriately cling to a (mere) "model" or paradigm with "all one's heart"? Or to put it another way, can anyone reading such a statement really envision any rival interpretation of the evidence changing Montgomery's mind? Along the same lines, it is clear from a reading of much evidentialist literature that facts have been amassed to buttress beliefs already held on other grounds, and by willpower.6 A subtle shifting of ground occurs. The apologist's faith causes him to deem “best" the reading of the data most in accord with his beliefs, even if it must be harmonized. But he proceeds to offer this reading to the non-believer as if it were the best reading of the facts in and of themselves. He claims to appeal to "common ground!' (e.g., "economy and inductiveness of explanation") but actually appeals to partisan criteria (e. g., "which reading of biblical criticism conforms to evangelical beliefs?").This results in what James Barr has called "maximal conserva­tism,” the serving of a hidden dogmatic agenda.7 The presuppositionalists, on the other hand, are quite open about their dogmatic agenda. They drop the pretense of a "common ground" and admit that the paradigm is self-sealing.

We have just suggested that, like their presuppositionalist rivals, the evidentialists actually seem to place their faith anterior to argumentation, though their principles call for the placing of it posterior to argumentation. (Both then are really in effect “presuppositionalists," though one side doesn't realize it.) And this inconsistency is no accident. Indeed if one thinks to use a truly evidentialist approach, he is dooming his apologetics from the start. There is something inherent in the common-criteria approach that makes its use in apologetics fundamentally wrong-headed.

Basically the trouble is that the only common ground is contemporary human experience of the world. (In terms of our discussion of paradigms, this is the same as "economic and inductive explanation" of the data at hand, without recourse to extraneous hypotheses.). Historical critics have a term for this: "the principle of analogy," as formulated by Ernst Troeltsch.8 This principle, the basis of the historical-critical method's “denial of the miraculous," is a red flag to evangelicals. Yet they use exactly the same principle, only with a different name and applied to different cases. This is

the common "empirical fit" argument used by Francis Schaeffer and Os Guiness to write off Eastern religions as failing to ring true to the depths of human experience.9 In both cases, the idea is that, though theoretically anything (ancient miracle stories or modern philosophical worldviews) is quite possibly true, there is no available criterion for plausibility except present, shared human experience. This is why users of electric lights and radio may have trouble accepting the miracles of the New Testament. This is why those who know suffering or love may find it difficult to accept the Eastern denial of the reality of these things. If the "common-ground" or “empirical fit" argument works at all, it works too well. Consistently pursued, such an inductive approach could of course lead only to some kind of natural theology, not to a "revealed religion" like evangelical Christianity.

Now if "common ground" is a chimera for apologetics, on what basis may the outsider opt for revealed religion? The evangelistic appeal of a consistent presuppositionalist must seem (from the human side) as a "leap of faith." And what the prospective convert sees, that the apologist-evangelist may not, is that this is only one of several invitations to leap in several  directions. And the leap is “known” (felt) to be the right one after the choice has been made ("I once was blind, but now I see"). Before the fact, how is he to decide which faith to leap into? Walter Kaufmann said it well:  

They say their doctrine is infallible and true, but ignore the fact that there is no dearth whatsoever of pretenders to infallibility and truth.... scores of other doctrines, scriptures, and apostles, sects and parties, cranks and sages make the same claim.... Those who have no such exalted notion of themselves have no way of deciding between dozens of pretenders if reason is proscribed [i.e., if common ground criteria are disallowed because of the “noetic effects of. the fall"].10 

Quite a dilemma! The common ground approach can never lead to conviction, but the presuppositionalist “leap of faith" could lead to Jim Jones as easily as to Jesus Christ! How could one decide? "Revolutionary suicide” in a Guyana rainforest is quite reasonable once one accepts the proper presup­positions. If one flinches because "obviously that's pathological," isn't he holding out on his piece of common ground, just like the unbelieving skeptic who judges the cross to be foolishness? If we cast away everyday experience as our standard of judgment, there can be no standard of judgment until after we make the leap of faith. But we could make that leap in any direction. And after we made it, it would seem right. The paradigm would carry with it its own criteria.

The upshot of all this is that the evidentialist apologetic with its common ground approach finally backfires. A really inductive approach to this- worldly evidence can lead one only to this-worldly (i.e., non-revealed) religion. The presuppositionalist apologetic is consistent but not at all compelling, since the immunity from doubt that it wins for those inside the circle of faith simultaneously cancels its attraction to those outside. It can look neither more nor less plausible since there is no standard with which it may be compared. And the same approach is amenable to every sect. But the evangelical Christian (or believer in any sect) does not need to trouble himself about this. If he is safely within the circle of the truth himself, he can simply dismiss the other sects. And as for the outsider, doesn't the believer trust in the Spirit's conviction--if not actual predestination, then at least prevenient grace?11 Then why worry about common ground, or for that matter about apologetics at all? Believers may plant the seed, but isn't it up to God to give the harvest (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)? Shouldn’t faith rest on God's Spirit, not the persuasive words of man's wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:4)? Shouldn't it be revealed by the Father in heaven, not by flesh and blood (Matthew 16: 17)?

And, finally, seen from the outsider's perspective, it would have to be said that the way to certain faith is an overwhelming "final experience," an enlightenment. Though the question of rational certitude is not theoretically solved, it is psychologically settled, since the new believer will no longer care to ask it. Now he knows.

By raising the question of the structure of paradigm-shifts and how they are possible, Thomas S. Kuhn has provided a set of categories with which better to understand the long-standing apologetics debate. When seen in terms of his theory, the two apologetical strategies presently dominant in evangelical circles, the evidentialist and the presuppositionalist, seem to be beset with surprising difficulties. In fact, these difficulties run so deep as to indicate that the only consistent apologetic is fideistic presuppositionalism, which is in a sense no apologetic at all, since on principle it removes any external standards by which its faith might be “vindicated” or “defended.”



1 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 150.  

2 John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 39. This line of reasoning is to be found in a large number of books, and with very little variation. See, for example, John Stott's Basic Christianity; J. N. D. Anderson's The Evidence for the Resurrection; Michael Green's Man Alive!; Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict; Clark Pinnock's Set Forth Your Case. 

3 Among Van Til’s many works, see for example The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture ([n.p.] Den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1967), p. 11: "one must be a believing Christian to study nature in the proper frame of mind and with proper procedure." 

4 Gordon J. Allport, The Individual and his Religion (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974), p. 83. 

5 Montgomery in Robert Campbell (ed.), Spectrum of Protestant Beliefs (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1968), p. 20. 

6 This assertion, I realize, invites a full-scale demonstration for which there is no space here. Basically, let me say that much apologetic argumen­tation for, e.g., the total reliability of the gospels as historical records, and for the historicity of the resurrection, are totally out of date and do not come to grips realistically with modern biblical criticism. This is true even of such recent works as Josh McDowell's More Evidence That Demands A Verdict and Buell and Hyder’s Jesus:  God, Ghost or Guru? The interested reader may find a full-scale treatment of these questions in my Beyond Born Again

7 See his incisive work Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978). 

8 For two clear and sympathetic treatments of the principle of analogy, see Van A. Harvey, The Historian & The Believer (New York: Macmil­lan Company, 1972); and F.. H. Bradley, The Presuppositions of Critical History (Chicago: Quadrange Books, 1968). 

9 See, for example, Francis Schaeffer's The God Who is There (Downer's Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1968); Escape from Reason (Downer's Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1968); and Os Guiness, The Dust of Death (Downer's Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press; 1973). Shaeffer's and Guiness's use of this argument, incidentally, shows them to be less consistently presuppositionalist than Van Til. 

10 Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963), p. 86. 

11 Van Til certainly does: "And it is only when the Holy Spirit gives man a new heart that he will accept the evidence of Scripture about itself and about nature for what it really is. The Holy Spirit's regenerating power enables man to place all things in true perspective." (Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, pp. 10-11).


Copyright©2008 by Robert M Price
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