Presuppositional Apologetics: An Analysis and Critique

A bit more “academic” than my typical blogs. I actually wrote this for one of my seminary classes.

INTRODUCTION AND THESIS

    There are several approaches to Christian apologetics, or defending the Christian faith. This paper will examine presuppositionalism, a recently developed approach that relies less on evidences, and more on transcendental arguments, than traditional apologetic methods. This paper will summarize the key assumptions and methods of presuppositionalism, examine the benefits and drawbacks of the method, and list some of those who align themselves with the method. The thesis of this paper is that, despite whatever shortcomings the method may have, presuppositionalism provides effective tools for arguing for the truth of Christianity.

A SUMMARY OF THE PRESUPPOSITIONAL METHOD OF APOLOGETICS

Presuppositionalism is a system of apologetics that is generally considered to have begun with Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), although the roots of presuppositionalism can be traced back to Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin. Presuppositionalism arose from Calvinist and Reformed theology, and teaches that apologists should “presuppose the truth of Christianity and not to think that they can or must arrive at Christian convictions at the end of a chain of secular reasoning.”1

Presuppositionalism begins with a view of epistemology that holds that all knowledge comes by revelation from God. Van Til wrote, “As God has self-contained being and all other being has created or derivative being, so God has self-contained and man has derivative knowledge.”2 As a result, any worldview that does not presuppose the truth of God’s Word is foolishness and vain deception, resulting in suppression of the truth and futile conclusions.

Presuppositionalism also holds that there is no neutral ground between the believer and the unbeliever. One either holds to the biblical worldview, or one holds to an unbiblical worldview. For the apologist to give up the axiom of the inerrancy of scripture is to accept an unbiblical starting point, and is foolishness. Presuppositionalist John Frame states that 1 Peter 3:15 “means not only that the apologist must ‘set apart Jesus as Lord,’ but also that his argument must presuppose that lordship,” and that “apologetic argument is no more neutral than any other human activity. In apologetic argument, as in everything else we do, we must presuppose the truth of God’s Word.”3 Presuppositionalism holds that traditional forms of apologetics foolishly honor the unbiblical worldview of the unbeliever by attempting to find neutral ground that cannot exist.

Presuppositionalism also holds that all people ultimately must presuppose God’s existence, even if they do not know it. Logic, morality, uniformity in nature, and the preconditions of intelligibility all presume the existence of God. All other worldviews must be logically inconsistent in order to account for such things, and are therefore false. In other words, the Christian worldview is the only worldview that can rationally make sense of the universe.

Consequently, presuppositionalism holds that traditional arguments based on various evidences are insufficient. Instead, presuppositionalism focuses arguments at the system or worldview level, arguing against the presuppositions at the foundation of the unbeliever’s worldview. Bahnsen states, “the apologist needs to recognize that the debate between believer and unbeliever is fundamentally a dispute or clash between two complete worldviews – between ultimate commitments and assumptions which are contrary to each other.”4 Presuppositional apologetics uses a transcendental argument, which is “possible if and only if God’s existence is true from the outset of the argument itself.”5 This is an indirect method of proof that argues if the God of the Bible does not exist, we cannot know anything at all. The argument is not that one must believe God exists in order to know anything, but rather that God must exist, whether anyone believes in Him, or not. The argument states that logic, the universe, knowledge, uniformity in nature, and morality could not exist if Christian theism is not true. The believer and unbeliever “together think through the implications of each other’s most basic assumptions so that the Christian may show the non-Christian how the intelligibility of his experience, the meaningfulness of logic, and the possibility of science, proof, or interpretation can be maintained only on the basis of the Christian worldview.”6

ADVANTAGES OF PRESUPPOSITIONALISM

The main advantage of presuppositional apologetics is that transcendental arguments deal with the underlying assumptions below the surface of an unbeliever’s worldview, and demonstrate the unreasonableness and logical inconsistencies in all non-Christian worldviews. Whatever evidence or logical arguments the non-believer presents, the presuppositionalist counters by pointing out that the underlying assumptions of the arguments are inconsistent with the axioms of the non-believer’s worldview. All non-Christian worldviews, when taken to their logical conclusions, can be reduced to the absurd by this method. Additionally, presuppositionalism forces the burden of proof on the non-believer. It allows the Christian apologist to utilize an offensive, rather than a defensive, strategy. Once the non-believer is forced to acknowledge that his worldview is irrational, the door is opened to present the Gospel as the only rational alternative.

OBJECTIONS TO PRESUPPOSITIONALISM

One objection leveled against presuppositionalism is that it is a circular argument. It assumes the Bible is true in order to prove the Bible is true. Presuppositionalists would respond that circular argument is unavoidable, and not necessarily fallacious. Jason Lisle writes, “Some degree of circular reasoning is unavoidable when proving an ultimate standard…an ultimate standard cannot be proved from anything else, otherwise it wouldn’t be ultimate. Therefore, if it is to be proved, it must use itself as the criterion.”7 Note that the Bible itself uses this type of logic in Hebrews 6:13, which states, “When God made His promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.”

Another objection to presuppositionalism is that it completely ignores evidence, and relies solely on logical arguments. This is not always the case, however. For example, Dr. Jason Lisle, who holds a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Colorado, is a young-earth creationist who uses presuppositional apologetics to argue for creationism. His use of evidence from astronomy is completely undergirded by a foundation of transcendental arguments and the authority of the Bible. He writes, “One perfectly appropriate use of scientific and historical evidence is to confirm biblical creation… When we say evidence confirms creation we mean that it is consistent with creation – it coincides and shows agreement.”8 He believes that evidence alone cannot prove creation, the Bible, or God, but evidence can and does provide support for belief.

Additionally, some have charged that presuppositionalism always assumes the reformed positions that only the elect few can understand Christianity, that logic and reason are totally corrupted by the Fall, and the non-elect cannot know anything. This may be true of Van Til and some other ultra-Calvinists, but not all presuppositionalists hold these views, and they are not necessary for the method to be successfully utilized.

CONCLUSIONS

    Although presuppositionalism was founded on theology with which non-Calvinists would disagree, the method has added much to the field of apologetics. Skeptics have long called Christianity irrational. Presuppositionalism shows that it is the skeptic who is irrational, and that biblical Christianity is the only rational worldview. It has infused Christian apologetics with additional tools that can be used by the Holy Spirit to reach people for Christ. For many unbelievers, traditional evidences have been unconvincing, but they are finding the presuppositional transcendental arguments more compelling. Whether the Christian should use a presuppositional approach, a traditional evidential approach, or some other approach, depends entirely on the skills and gifts of the apologist, the mindset of the unbeliever to whom the Gospel is being presented, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Most evidentialists include arguments at the presuppositional level, and most presuppositionalists utilize evidences in their arguments. The difference is primarily a matter of emphasis and underlying theology. I have personally found that a mixture of evidential and presuppositional approaches gives me more tools for reaching a wider range of lost souls for Christ.

SHORT LIST OF PRESUPPOSITIONAL APOLOGISTS

The following Christian writers are aligned with the presuppositional method of apologetics:

  • Cornelius Van Til
  • Gordon Clark
  • John Calvin
  • Greg Bahnsen
  • Francis Schaeffer
  • John Frame
  • Jason Lisle
  • Ken Ham
  • Richard Pratt
  • Mike A. Robinson

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bahnsen, Greg. Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. Edited by Robert Booth. Nacogdoches, Texas: Covenant Media Press, 1996.

Bahnsen, Greg. “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics.” Westminster Theological Journal 57, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 1-31. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000896523&site=ehost-live&scope=site
(accessed September 5, 2009).

Collett, Don. “Van Til and Transcendental Argument.” Westminster Theological Journal 65, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 289-306. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu: 2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001389134&site=ehost-live&scope=site
(accessed September 5, 2009).

Copenger, Mark. “Presuppositionalism.” In The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, edited by Ed Hinson and Ergun Caner, 401-404. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.

Frame, John. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Philipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1994.

Lisle, Jason. The Ultimate Proof of Creation. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2009.

Van Til, Cornelius. Christian Apologetics. Edited by William Edgar. Philipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2003.

Notes:

1. Coppenger, Mark, “Presuppositionalism,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, ed. Ed Hinson and Ergun Caner (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 402.

2. Van Til, Cornelius, Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2003), 31-32.

3. Frame, John, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1994), 9.

4. Bahnsen, Greg, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert Booth (Nacogdoches, Texas: Covenant Media Press, 1996), 68.

5. Collett, Don, “Apologetics: Van Til and Transcendental Argument,” Westminster Theological Journal 65, no. 2 (Fall 2003), 291. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001389134&site=ehost-live&scope=site (accessed September 5, 2009).

6. Bahnsen, Greg, “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics,” Westminster Theological Journal 57, no. 1 (Spring 1995), 3. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000896523&site=ehost-live&scope=site (accessed September 5, 2009).

7. Lisle, Jason, The Ultimate Proof of Creation (Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2009), 145.

8. Lisle, 98.

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4 Responses

  1. “One objection leveled against presuppositionalism is that it is a circular argument. It assumes the Bible is true in order to prove the Bible is true.”

    Are there any presuppositionalists who believe that Christians don’t need to be prove the Bible in the first place?

    • Most presuppositionalists do NOT believe the Bible must be proved in the first place.

      Rather, they seek to show that the world around us is CONSISTENT with a belief in the Bible, and INCONSISTENT with other worldviews. Presuppositionalists generally begin with the Bible as their starting point, rather than seeking to prove the Bible.

  2. “. Presuppositionalism shows that it is the skeptic who is irrational, and that biblical Christianity is the only rational worldview. It has infused Christian apologetics with additional tools that can be used by the Holy Spirit to reach people for Christ. ”
    No, it just shows the Christian to be mean,rude, and arrogant
    “For many unbelievers, traditional evidences have been unconvincing, but they are finding the presuppositional transcendental arguments more compelling.” uh no i find them less convicing actually and as well they seem to be just bare assertions han arguements

    • Tony, you’re doing a great job of showing who has the rational arguments. An ad hominem attack is not a rational argument; neither is the bare assertion that presuppostionalism is nothing more than a bare assertion.

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