Presuppositional Apologetics: An Introduction (1)

In the last few weeks I have encountered articles and audio in which the approach to Apologetics known as Presuppositionalism has been thoroughly misconstrued.  I am therefore re-posting an older article, this time in short installments, which may help correct any stray reader who has been misled.

An Introduction

Apologetics is the defense and confirmation of the Christian Faith. Peter told his readers that they were to be “always ready to give an answer (apologia) for the hope which was within them.” (1 Pet. 3:15). He did not want believers to be caught napping. Their firm hope was not based upon “cunningly devised fables” (2 Pet. 1:16), but came about as a result of their reception of the truth about Christ and His world. Peter stated that the first step in Christians giving a reasoned defense was to, “sanctify the Lord Christ in [their] hearts.” He did not mean that the Lord was to be acknowledged on the basis of some ‘warm fuzzy-feeling’ inside. That was certainly not what the apostle was referring to. Rather, by “the heart” (kardia) Peter was speaking of the thinking person – the innermost person. George Zemek calls the heart “man’s mission-control center.” In short, Peter urged his readers to adopt a fully Christian outlook on life. This mindset is to be brought to the apologetic task. Believers have “the mind of Christ,” (1 Cor. 2:16), and they are to utilize it in their daily lives – and, in particular, says Peter, in their apologetics.

When one spells this out in plain terms, it means that Christians must not abandon their Bible’s at the crucial moment when their Faith is assailed. Instead, they are to assert confidently and intelligently the Biblical perspective about God, about man, and about the fallen world in which we live. What is called “Presuppositional” Apologetics attempts to do just that. It does not ask the Christian to step backwards in time and employ his unsanctified reason, and then to argue back to God. It refuses to re-enter the darkness of unbelieving thinking, and to grant that somehow “man by searching” can now “find out God.” (cf. Job 11:7). Rather, it picks up the light of the Creator (cf. Psa. 36:9b; Matt. 5:14-16; Eph. 5:8), and shines it upon the unbeliever’s rebellious heart, showing him the truth about his rebellion and his sinning against his better knowledge. Thus, presuppositionalism takes a self-consciously theological approach to the defense of the truth of Christianity.

This of course means that the division between theology and apologetics is one of emphasis, and it demands a different approach to apologetic thinking, since the door is wide open to theologizing right away. In this first article the focus will mainly be upon presuppositions; those heart commitments that govern the way people view things, both Christians and non-Christians. A Biblical apologetic is nothing if not a clash of worlds. With that in mind we begin with God and His Word.

1. God and Scripture.

The Presuppositional Argument for God’s existence takes into account (as it should) the basic assumptions of the believer and the unbeliever. It asserts that the fundamental aspects of the world of human experience are only intelligible within a Biblical-theistic framework. Propounding this as it does, it does not accept the autonomy of human reasoning, but, instead, holds to a “revelational epistemology” – a perspective on knowledge that is anchored in Scripture. All the standard theistic arguments are defeasable in character, which is to say, they cannot come to certainty, but must admit the possibility of being overturned. This is not the way the Bible presents God (e.g. Gen. 1:1ff.; Psa. 53:1; Jn. 1:1-14; Acts 2:36; 9:22; Rom. 1:1ff.). Why, then, should it be ours?

1a. Nobody Can Hide From The One True God.

Above everything else, believers should think Biblically. They are commanded to “do all things to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), and this includes loving God with all their minds (Matt. 22:37). Paul told the Church at Colossae that in Christ, “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Since, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7), and of wisdom (Prov. 9:10), Christianity – and everything else – is best defended from within a Christian point of view. After all, it is all very well for us to declare that the Bible is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice, but what use is such a profession if we lay it aside in apologetics? Are we supposed to rely upon our own understandings at the outset? (Prov. 3:5). Christians should not be concerned about proving to a skeptic that a god of some description exists. Mere “theism” is not the issue, and any acknowledgement of bare theism constitutes no apologetic victory. In two separate psalms we are told that, “the fool has said in his heart that there is no God.” (Pss.14:1; 53:1).

Unbelief is rooted in heart-rebellion. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once told the philosopher C.E.M. Joad, “God is not a subject for debate” (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1). He is not one whom we may be honestly skeptical about. He is the ultimate reality. General revelation shows God to man (Rom. 1:18-20). To disbelieve in Him is to think as a fool in God’s world (Rom.1:22; 1 Cor. 2:6-16). To be sure, fallen men bury God’s clear revelation under an avalanche of brilliant excuses and shrewd reasoning. But it is false reasoning; sinful reasoning (Rom.1:21-22, 28).

The famed English writer G.K.Chesterton once said, “If a man does not believe in God, it is not that he will believe in nothing, but that he will believe in anything.” John Calvin, in his Institutes, began the book by saying that man cannot come to true knowledge unless he knows God and then knows himself before the face of God. These Biblical beliefs must find a conspicuous place in our approach to the defense of Christianity.

It is the universal teaching of both Testaments that God is God alone (Isa. 44:6; 45:5-6, 21). All Christians have historically believed in only one God (Jer. 10:10; 1 Thess. 1:9; Psa. 86:10; 1 Tim. 1:17; Jam. 2:19). There are not two or more competing gods (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 32:40). The Bible presents a God who is Almighty and solitary. He will brook no rivals. Deuteronomy 6:4 states; “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” This verse is repeated by the Lord Jesus in Mark 12:29. We also find the doctrine in John 14:9; Col. 1:15, and many other places. Further, we Christians assert, on the basis of Holy Scripture, that God “has not left Himself without a witness.” (Acts 14:17). The God of the Bible is the greatest Fact (cf. Exod. 3:13-14), a truth which some apologetic schools deny, believing as they do that God is not as obvious to men and women as many mundane things. But without the fact of God all other facts, as we shall see, are simply unintelligible.

The Christian-Biblical position says that whoever sees the world Biblically sees it truly – as it really is. Whoever rejects a Biblical worldview misinterprets the world (to the extent that he follows a false worldview). We must never forget that because reality is God-formed, even rank infidels see some things (e.g. principles of science, norms of ethics, etc.) in much the same way Christians do. But they do this by not following their worldview.

1b. Should Human Reason “Authorize” Scripture?

Many Christian apologists begin without the Bible when trying to establish the existence of the one true God. Greg Bahnsen noted: “It is a common mistake among evangelicals to imagine that the authority of God and His Word is the basis for their theology and preaching, but the authority for defending this faith must be something other than God and His Word.” These apologists employ what is essentially a modified “Natural Theology” as the first step in their apologetic procedure. They attempt to get to God without taking into account what God has said about Himself. In establishing the theistic arguments on human reason alone, these men are doing four things that ought to give pause to Bible believers: 1. They set up human reason as the first (and therefore, ultimate) court of appeal. 2. They only deal in probabilities, never certainties. 3. They can only posit a deity, not the triune God of Scripture. 4. They hide their own Christian pre-commitments by their methodology, but they are forced to admit Christian concepts only. But is that what we ought to be satisfied with? Does the Scripture lead us to expect that the Christian assertion for the existence of God only cashes out in the currency of probability? And if, as many an atheist or agnostic will gleefully tell us, the arguments so often presented by these apologists are open to serious objections, does that mean that the unbeliever really does have sufficient reason to remain in his unbelief and rebellion?

1c. The Self-Attesting Scriptures.

A person must have some authority: some ground upon which he stands and upon which he builds his outlook on life. If the authority is not the Bible, then perhaps it is naturalism, or the Koran, or even Oprah. Whichever authority is chosen, no one is neutral. Therefore, we as Christians should not to be afraid to agree with Christian writer Brad Scott when he says, “orthodox Christianity is frankly presuppositional.” Every opinion is. So, then, there are lots of “foundations”, and conflicting authorities. Obviously, only one of these authorities can be true. Only one can actually correspond with the way the world is. All the others will inevitably conflict with reality.

According to Jesus Christ, whoever builds his life upon His words builds upon a lasting and solid foundation. Whoever builds upon any other foundation, however splendid it may look, in truth builds upon a foundation of sand (Matt. 7:31-37). Obviously, Christ’s words are found in the Bible. Thus, we are once more thrown upon Scripture (cf. Jn.10:35). Scripture was the ultimate authority for Jesus Christ. It therefore ought to be the ultimate authority for those of us who would be like Him. An ultimate authority (Scripture) cannot be brought before the bar of any secondary authority (like human reason). So presuppositionalists say that Scripture is self-attesting. As Graeme Goldsworthy has pointed out, “By definition a final authority cannot be proven as an authority on the basis of some higher authority. The highest authority must be self-attesting.” Furthermore, says Goldsworthy, “Either we work on the basis of a sovereign, self-proving God who speaks to us by a word that we accept as true simply because it is his word, or we work on the basis that man is the final judge of all truth. The Christian position, to be consistent, accepts the Bible is God’s Word…” Because the words of Christ are in the Bible, we can speak, like Cornelius Van Til often does, of the “Self-attesting Christ of Scripture.” The Word of God, whether Incarnate or inscripturate, is not subject to the word of men.

1d. The Self-Attesting Christ of Scripture.

We have noticed that the Christian is to assume a Biblical mindset. He or she is said to have “the mind of Christ,” so it would be a strange breed of Christian that would openly set that aside in any of its deliberations. A child of God is to bring “every thought captive to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5). Van Til correctly asserted, “Faith in the self-attesting Christ of the Scriptures is the beginning, not the conclusion, of wisdom.” The only Christ the Christian cares about is the Christ of the Bible – the Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – the Word who gave the Book. Any other Christ is an imposter who carries no authority. Our Christ calls us and we know His voice (Jn. 10:27), just as everyone that is of the truth hears His voice (Jn. 18:37). “The Christian, therefore,” adds Van Til, “attempts to understand his world through the observation and logical ordering of facts in self-conscious subjection to the plan of the self-attesting Christ of Scripture.” A saint who consciously refuses to use the mind of Christ and its outlook until his own reason gives the go-ahead, is a Christian who believes it is right to think independently of God, at least for the time being. By contrast, Van Til declared, “as Christians we must look at the world as Christ Himself looked at it and, in so far as any man does not, he views it falsely. Consequently the attempt to find God in the world without looking through the eyes of Christ is fruitless, not because the world does not reveal God (it continually shouts of the existence of God to men), but because men need new eyes!” This immediately creates a tension between the demands laid upon us in Scripture, and our own unscriptural thinking. The NT says “if any man speak, let him speak as the Oracles of God.” (1 Pet.4:11). But many of us want to argue for the truth of Christianity by deliberately not speaking in the prescribed way. We know that the non-Christian will reject the Biblical worldview and the Bible’s diagnosis of himself as a fallen creature, but he must be confronted with these facts and shown the folly of an unbelieving heart attitude.

To be continued.

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6 comments

  1. Yes Fred. Here are some examples off the top of my head:

    1. “Presuppositionalism teaches no common ground between believer & unbeliever.” – Wrong. We teach no neutral ground and no common ground in principle.

    2. “Circular reasoning.” – One cannot but argue in a circular fashion from ones ultimate commitment. The reasoning is not vicious or syllogistic but argues from necessary pre-conditions. (God & Scripture).

    3. “There are no brute facts. All facts pre-interpreted – by our minds.” – Misrepresentation. It is true there are no brute facts, but Van Til’s reason is that every fact is pre-interpreted – by GOD!

    4. “Van Til’s transcendental reasoning is just a thinly veiled version of the cosmological argument.” – Untrue. The standard arguments from effects to final causation are constructed using deductive logic on the basis of natural theology (unaided reason). Presuppositionalists argue that unless one presupposes the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture it is not possible to prove anything (e.g. causation).

    Hope this helps.

    God bless,

    Paul

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