How Satisfactory is the Term ‘Presuppositional’ Apologetics?

Intro. I don’t think anyone who employs Van Til’s approach is overjoyed with the label ‘presuppositionalism.’ (PA).  Van Til himself wasn’t terribly happy with it.  Neither was Greg Bahnsen, whose apologetic acuity made him perhaps Van Til’s most faithful and articulate disciple.

Stressing the role of presuppositions did not mean, either for Van Til or Bahnsen, nor Frame or Oliphint, that evidences were not to have an important part to play within this approach.   Van Til stated over and over again that the apologist ought to employ evidences from the various disciplines like archaeology and science.  Bahnsen was in full agreement.  He was happy to refer the inquirer to manuscript evidence for the preservation of the Bible, or statistical data concerning the impossibility of evolution, if he thought it would clear away a problem.

The trouble was and is, of course, that evidence and interpretations of evidence cannot be separated, and this drives the issue back to the presuppositions one brings with them as they interpret.  So, as Van Til would say, ones philosophy of fact would have to be scrutinized.  As advocated by Van Til, the self-conscious Christian will reason by presupposition from the self-attesting Scriptures.

So does this mean that ‘Presuppositionalism’ is a good name for Van Til’s approach?  Most people who follow Van Til would say no.  Here are some reasons why:

1. The word ‘presuppositional’ tends to polarize the minds of friend and enemy alike.  Friends of the approach have often ignored evidences since (as the recent Ham – Nye debate showed), the real problem is not the availability of evidence for the accuracy of the Bible or the Christian Worldview, but the glasses the unbeliever has on through which they interpret that evidence.  And as presuppositionalists have been quick to point out, the dominant ideas lying behind a person’s interpretation of the evidence – ideas which exert such a powerful influence on the way people think – will have to be unearthed if their hearts are to be exposed to the truth.

If that is the case, why not just get to the point and deal with presuppositions?  The answer is because presuppositions and evidence are related and attention should be drawn to both.  If this is not done the apologist can sound like some tiresome bore correcting logical errors in other people.  Or just as bad, someone who tears down without building something in its place.  But we do want to point to the evidences.  We do want to do positive apologetics.

2. On the other hand, Christians who don’t like PA are presented with an easy target to fling their objections at.  Many will think ‘presupposition’ and automatically deduce that all the the vast evidence for Christianity must be ignored if PA is adopted.  Surely the Bible itself speaks of ‘many infallible proofs’ and Jesus implores His detractors to believe for the sake of the works.  How can these passages be swept aside?

3. Other apologists think that if one is presuppositional it means all argumentation is gone.  Certainly, as with evidences, PA criticizes the attempt to reason with the unbeliever as if he were neutral or lacking knowledge of the Divine nature, but it does not mind discussing things like design or causality, so long as these things are not considered more ultimate or perspicuous than God Himself, or providing they did not place the Living God in the Dock to be cross-examined.

I think this is why in his helpful and extensive Bibliography of Apologetics (in the Apologetics Study Bible) Doug Groothuis does not include a single Van Tillian contribution!

4. But another problem with the term is that it was employed by thinkers such as Gordon H. Clark or E.J. Carnell or Francis Schaeffer for their approaches.  Clark stressed beginning with an axiom, which he called a presupposition.  From this axiom (like ‘the Bible is the infallible Word of God’) a system of thought could be forged which would be able to take on all-comers (to paraphrase Carnell).

In these apologetic views the Christian presupposition was not a transcendental.  It was not thought that the Biblical Worldview was the only one which would not make nonsense of experience and validate itself through application.  Rather, a ‘presupposition’ was defined more in terms of a hypothesis admitting verification.

For these sorts of reasons; the temptation to ignore evidence; the implication that evidence was unimportant; the idea that all classical theistic arguments were off the table, and the confusion brought about by the use of the word ‘presuppositional’ in non-Van Tillian schemes, it is unfortunate that Van Til’s apologetic bears the name ‘Presuppositional.’

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7 comments

  1. I’m not a huge fan of apologetics, but the point presuppositional apologetics is that what is presupposed can be examined. Many forms of modernism tend to view that we can come to though without any assumptions. This is the project of Descartes which failed. All systems need feed point from which thought starts. It can be simple things like “my memories of the past are reliable” or “the laws of the universe are not constantly changing.” The whole point is to examine what is assumed. Every belief system has assumptions which can be looked at and thinking can be done about the assumptions. We can examine our assumptions of course and if we find them suspect we could do a paradigm shift and introduce new assumptions which will have certain conclusions. One main point is that most apologetics wrongly looks to force opposing positions to be incoherent. An coherent position simply means all the ideas work together. Every idea in a coherent system could be false and the system still coheres. That is why examining presuppositions is important.

  2. It is quite a dilemma that Van Til’s apologetics is called Presuppositionalism, a term coined by Buswell I believe and have “stuck” ever since. At the same time the name Covenantal Apologetics also have some baggage; I wished it can just be called Reformed apologetics, and no doubt those like Sproul would protest and it might be confused with Reformed epistemology. I still the term Van Tillian apologetics might be best though some wouldn’t like their apologetics methodology have merely the name Van Til when the root of it goes deeper than just one person. Thanks for this article.

  3. Yep, this is what the non-reformed Christians are led to believe when it comes to presuppositional apologetics. I know an evangelical Bible teacher who is very knowledgable and has a very gospel-centred non-Calvinist gospel ministry and is a very good authority on apologetics. She basically comments on presuppositional apologetics as. Basically what she has said reinforces the results of presuppositionists carried their apologetics too far in the eyes of non-presuppositionists. You may disagree with her conclusions (and I do!) but I think what she said bears some important considerations:

    ———————————————————–

    http://thechristianscribbler.com/about/

    “…I don’t utilize presup. apologetics as much as classical and evidential. The way that I look at the overall picture, however, is how I look at therapy styles in psychology. You don’t just choose one or two therapy styles and stick with them no matter what, instead you analyze who you are talking to and then pick an approach that fits the person.

    In short, most modern atheists are probably not going to respond well to presup. apologetics. They argue that it is circular logic, and they do have a certain point. You can help others see their own presuppositions, and that can be helpful, but starting out presupposing a God and that the Bible is 100% accurate will not get you very far with aggressive atheists. They can be helpful with believers of other religions who are used to having supernatural beliefs, however.

    The reason Calvinists favor that approach is that they already believe that every person’s fate is already sealed, not by free choice, but by God’s arbitrary choosing. Since that is the case, the atheist is either going to believe the word, or not. They do not believe that reason or evidence can sway an individual, only irresistible grace. To a true Calvinist, they don’t really see the point of classical or evidential apologetics, because they don’t think any amount of evidence would be enough to sway someone’s beliefs.

    I do think it has non-Calvinistic applications, and can be used with people who seem open to entertaining the idea of the supernatural.

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    1. Joel,

      I’m not trying to score points against Reformed Christianity here. It is very clear from these remarks that this individual has no idea what she is talking about. For one thing, the doctrine of predestination does not even arise in presuppositionalist writings, and it certainly does not follow that that approach would be utilized by Calvinists more than evidential or classical views. The same ‘fatalist’ results would accrue using any approach!

      Further, men like Sproul, Gerstner, Buswell, Warfield, and very many others use or used evidential/classical apologetics.

      I notice this person is a psychologist who uses various approaches. Well, there is one approach she ought to be using and that is God’s approach. In the field of apologetics, that is what presuppositionalists do. It is not okay to argue that Christian’s ought not to presuppose God and the Bible when doing apologetics. What does she think 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 10:5; Col. 3:17; Jn. 17:17; Rom. 12:1-2 mean? What is her authority, the Bible plus her opinion of unbelievers?

      I don’t mean to be mean, as I realize she is just one among many apologists who advocate stepping out of the light to call unbelievers into the light, but I get fed up with folks who have clearly not read Van Til critiquing presuppositonal apologetics. She is no authority on this particular issue.

      God bless,

      Paul

      1. Paul, before you get all riled up let me point out that, as I said above I’m not on the same page as the lady Kliska that I quoted. I was using her arguments as an illustration concerning how non-Calvinist non-presuppositionists *assume* what presuppositional apologetics is. Her argument is typical of the Christians I have read who are of the same wavelength as her, kind of seeker friendly and very market driven, read lots of Josh McDowell, average Baptist dispensationalists who may only have just got started dipping into Willow Creek.

        Now I don’t believe what she said is correct, but it is also a fact that presuppositional apologetics not employed properly will lead to the impression among people like *Kliska* that all presuppositionists are like the cariatures you were alluding to in your last paragraph of the main article. That’s helpful in some sense because we know that such cariatures exists among non-presuppositionist Christians on those who use presuppositionism, and unfortunatwely [some] presuppositionists must shoulder the blame for badly done presuppositional apologetics. The solution is not to abandon presuppositionist apologetics, but to do it better.

        Hope this makes sense.

      2. Joel,

        Yes, I did get a little riled didn’t I? Not with you, but with this person who can’t just admit she doesn’t know.

        Sorry if I came across too strong.

        P

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