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.’