I’m not going to dance around or pull any punches here … this book is terrible and I can’t recommend it to anyone; in fact, I would advise those new to Presuppositional apologetics to avoid it all together.
The best thing I can say for pastor Robinson, is that his heart’s in the right place, but I’m not even sure of that. Let me explain:
There is a maddening trend in Evangelical circles. I’ve been struggling to explain it. I’ve called it puritanism, I’ve called it zealotry, I’ve called it provincialism, but no matter what I call it, it avoids my efforts at labeling. Better to describe it then: it’s a tendency to avoid serious criticism, maintain a dishonest air of intellectual superiority, and beat one’s chest in the intellectual arena. It’s pure arrogance – and worse, it’s uncalled for arrogance. Even worsererer still – it’s a feigned arrogance, in my humble opinion. A sort of “peacocking” as it were – puffing themselves up with all their hand-waving and saber rattling, to frighten off the pagan wolves.
Robinson has his tail feathers all the way out in this book. Of course, to the puritanical zealot intent on defending Robinson, I wont be able to prove the man’s emotional state. They’ll never let me score a point on that note. I don’t have magical “empath” powers, after all. Nevertheless, I’ve been doing Christian apologetics for close to seventeen years, and in that time, I’ve developed a seasoned intuition about other people; and I’ve seen so many Christians, particularly Evangelicals, fall prey to this sort of attitude, that I know it when I see it. I can smell what these people are stepping in.
These pastors think so lowly of their congregants, that they dip into the pool of dishonest argumentation, and plumb the depths of shoddy scholarship, to avoid them having to think for themselves and confront the big evil pagan wolves.
But this runs counter to Presuppositionalism. We say: “Fling open the gates! Let in the wolves!” …then we let our children play with them as if they’re amusing pups instead of dangerous threats.
Shoddy, shoddy, shoddy, scholarship! This is the last thing we need in the Evangelical community – more reasons for atheists to mock our intellectual pursuits.
I note Robinson’s book is published by a company called “Outskirts Press” which, apparently, offers publishing packages to anyone. Basically, it’s self-published, then…which explains why the book doesn’t seem to have been edited by any competent Christian philosophers or peer-reviewed by the presuppositionalist community. In short – it’s nothing more than one long sermon, written by Robinson, and directed to his congregants (or presumably, any of the nameless, faceless, masses of Evangelical weaklings, who need overly-general, imprecise, introductory material).
The scholarship here is shoddy, as I’ve said. There’s no preface, no introduction, no way for us to orient what Robinson is trying to do or place his work in any sort of context – he just dives right in.
And in the first paragraph, we immediately notice the lack of citations; statement after statement is offered, without any supporting material. But worse, we have blatant errors.
On page one, we have this sentence:
“To a consistent atheist, the concept of nonmaterial law is nonsensical.”
What? This is outrageous. There are all kinds of atheists who have no problems conceptualizing non-material objects. In fact, as Christians get better and better at critiquing materialist metaphysical models, atheists are beginning to abandon materialism all together. It’s not uncommon for me to hear, at least once a day, some atheist claim to be a “transcendental idealist”. And like Kant, they try to establish objective moral norms via some form of secularized deontological ethic.
Of course their efforts fail, as we apologist can show, but to claim that they’re unable to make sense of logical laws at all, is simply false.
What Robinson must have meant to say, was “to a consistent MATERIALIST, nonmaterial laws are nonsensical”. But even this statement would be problematic, as there are many philosophical materialists who believe in the existence of non-material objects which are explained by matter in some way or other. Robinson should qualify his statement somehow. Maybe say: “To a naive materialist, nonmaterial laws would be nonsensical!” – in which case, he’d be absolutely right. I think this is what he meant all along, but he stated it incorrectly.
A few lines down, Robinson arbitrarily switches from using the word “atheists”, to talking about “skeptics.” Then he asserts:
“These profligates despised the sexual mores of the Bible because it felt like putting on a straightjacket.”
Sorry Pastor Robinson – this sort of thing might fly in a sermon, but if you’re writing a serious book, you need to cite some “profligates” who have actually admitted to feeling as if Christian ethics put them in a straightjacket. Or, at the very least, provide us some illustrations to exemplify the caricature of their attitude. You can’t just expect us to believe that you magically know what these people are feeling. And further – I know they feel this way. I believe you. The Bible teaches us that unbelievers will gnash their teeth at God. But you don’t even cite Scripture here. Even if you did cite Scripture, you’d still need to give a few real-life examples (quotes) to show that Scripture is right when it says unbelievers hate Christian ethics.
The fact that Robinson doesn’t provide us with this, and the fact that he follows up this statement with an arbitrary quote from “Calvin” (presumably, he assumes everyone reading the book will know that he’s a Calvinist and is likely citing John Calvin) … is proof that Robinson views his book as less a serious presentation of moral theory (as it relates to Christian apologetics), and more of a sermon to unintelligent, nameless, faceless, congregants (eg. the little old ladies being bullied by mean atheists, or the naive young college kids getting kicked around by their professors).
Argument for the Necessity of Moral “Aboslutes”
I wont belabor my review with example after example of shoddy scholarship. But one more needs to be addressed.
As Presuppositionalists, we begin our argumentation with some proposition or other, that the unbeliever takes as granted. Then, we demonstrate that this proposition can only be true, or in some way depends on, the truth of the Christian worldview. We leave the unbeliever having to decide whether to reject the original proposition, or accept the truth of the Christian worldview.
There are many unbelievers, though, who reject the existence of moral absolutes. But some presuppositionalists try to go off-track here. They try to force the unbeliever to accept the existence of moral “aboslutes” (whatever a moral “absolute” turns out to be). They figure that if they can force the unbeliever to accept absolutes, then they can go one step further and show that these moral absolutes can only exist if God exists.
This is not good presuppositional argumentation. If someone rejects moral absolutes, we should simply say: ”stay away from my children you sicko”. If we do apologetics with him, we focus on some other proposition or other that he takes for granted. (Presumably, moral anti-realists believe in the legitimacy of language, the uniformity of nature, science, logic, math, etc. etc. …argue with them about one of these. Don’t try to force them to accept objective morals).
Still – I sympathize with pastor Robinson here. The temptation is for us to come up with some argument that can demonstrate that “moral absolutes” are necessary preconditions of rational thought. In that way, we could show that a rejection of “moral absolutes” equates to a rejection of rational thought.
This would be an excellent and useful argument for us Christians, if we can make it work. I’ve been working on a few different arguments for this myself. And it’s because I’ve been working hard on it, that I became infuriated when I read Robinson’s argument.
Here it is:
1. To postulate that there are no moral absolutes, is to make a truth claim.
2. A truth claim presupposes moral absolutes. (say wha??? – S.T.)
3. Hence, there are moral absolutes.
4. Objective moral absolutes can only exist if [the Christian God] exists.
5. Therefore, [the Christian God] exists. It’s impossible for Him not to.
This sort of thing might fly when preaching to a congregation, or when intellectually bullying young college kids, but it’s terrible scholarship; Robinson shows no familiarity with contemporary debates in theistic ethics on this point.
What’s worse – he alludes to this argument over and over throughout the book.
The first thing to note, is that moral philosophers distinguish between moral truths and non-moral truths. The moral anti-realists reject the existence of moral truths, but they do not (usually) reject the existence of non-moral truths.
The proposition: “the apple is on the table” is a non-moral proposition. It has nothing at all to do with what we ought or ought not do. The proposition: “you should eat the apple” IS a moral proposition.
The proposition: “you should eat the apple” can be false, while the proposition “the apple is on the table” is true, without any sort of contradiction. Further – you can deny that the proposition: “you should eat the apple” has any truth-value at all, while the truth value of the proposition “the apple is on the table” remains the same (ie: true, or false, whatever the case may be).
The moral anti-realist can reject that he *should* eat the apple, without rejecting other truth claims about the apple.
To arbitrarily relate moral and non-moral truths, is fallacious.
How does Robinson justify it?
Well, he seems to simply presuppose that moral and non-moral truths are the same, but at other points, he tries to argue that if the atheist were to claim that we “should” or “should not” accept any of his or her truth claims, then the atheist is asking us to both accept absolute morality, while simultaneously rejecting it.
But this is more shoddy scholarship. The moral anti-realists can (and usually do) usually accept hypothetical imperatives. In other words: ”if I want X, then I must do Y”. A rejection of objectively-binding moral propositions does not automatically imply a rejection of subjective non-moral propositions.
Unfortunately, Robinson is teaching people this, and if they run out into the wolf pack and try to offer it as an argument, they’re going to be torn to bits by any of the atheists who have, even a modicum of philosophical training.
As a theonomist, I have other quibbles, but I’ll leave them be for now. Also, we might gripe about how sporadic and random the writing-style is – with seemingly unrelated statements flying at the reader left and right, and only a barely discernible outline; but again, that’s not a serious criticism. (Although, it is proof of the utility of having constructive feedback – a good editor would have sent this manuscript back to Robinson, repeatedly, until he cleaned up his language and made the book flow better).
What I’m most concerned about is the shoddy standard of scholarship, and the arguments which aren’t going to help the presuppositionalist. I’m so upset about this, because I *REALLY* needed pastor Robinson to be the man!
What man? To be the man who relates all the academic, scholarly work in Christian ethics, to a uniquely presuppositional apologetic context. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like he’s even aware of what’s going on in the world of theistic ethics. At the *very* least, he should have had a chapter summarizing John Fame’s “triperspectival” ethical model, and given us a few tips on how to apply this in practical apologetic encounters.
…but sadly, those of us looking for a serious presuppositional champion, to carry on Dr. Bahnsen’s legacy…must keep looking.