A Brief Summary of Presuppositional Apologetics

This was first posted in 2010.

Many people have maybe heard of what is called presuppositional apologetics but have little idea what it actually is.  This situation is made worse because some defenders of the Faith are labeled presuppositional but, in fact, aren’t.  So how should I describe it?

The first thing I would say is that although I personally have few problems with it, “presuppositionalism” is not perhaps the best name for the approach.  A more preferable title would be something like “theological apologetics.”   Nevertheless, we are stuck with the name so we better understand what we mean by it.  In this approach a “presupposition” is not just a prior assumption which one brings to a problem.  It is not, e.g., supposing that the Bible is God’s Word and seeing where that gets you.  This only makes your presupposition a “hypothetical,” not a necessary stance.  But a “presupposition” here means an “ultimate heart commitment” to some interpretation and explanation of reality.

Cornelius Van Til, the father of this kind of apologetics, was very clear about this: he constantly stressed that, in opposition to the world, Biblical Christianity offered the only foundation upon which man could truly engage any question at all.  Thus, for Van Til, God’s revelation in Scripture tells us how things really are.  Things are the way God has made them and operates them, even though the world is fallen and cursed.  Things are how God’s Word depicts them.

When we operate in accordance with this revelation, whether in doing science or in communicating to one another, or, indeed, in any of our thinking, we encounter Truth, whose Source is God .  To the degree that we diverge from the Biblical Worldview we fall into “untruth.”

To provide a concrete example: the atheist Christopher Hitchens often cited the beauty of the Parthenon to show how the pagan Greeks before Christ didn’t need Christianity to construct such marvels.  How would a presuppositionalist respond?  He could respond any number of ways.  He could simply say that accepting Hitchens’ claim does not affect the argument about the truth of Christianity one way or another.  This would be to offer a true yet superficial response.  If he wanted to dull the rhetorical impact of the statement, the presuppositionalist might point out that Biblical Christianity is the only worldview position which,

1. Explains why the Greeks had the latent abilities to build the Parthenon (i.e. their mathematical, engineering and artistic skill).

2. Explains why we find the Parthenon so beautiful (because humans have been given an aesthetic sense not found in animals).

3. Explains why the Greeks built the Parthenon to a false deity (because of the Fall).

Thus, the apologist might say, “If Christianity were not true there could be no explanation for the Parthenon!”

Naturally the unbeliever would want to object to this statement strongly.  But the presuppositionalist has now got him on his ground.  When challenged to give a rational account of man’s scientific, artistic, or moral attainments on the basis of their ultimate commitment (or “presupposition”) to a mindless purposeless amoral universe, the best Hitchens and his ilk will do is to say,  “I don’t have to account for it.  It’s there isn’t it?”  To which the apologist could reply.  “Yes, it’s there because that’s how God created us.  Those Greeks were made in God’s rational image and were given minds which could calculate and reason and appreciate beauty and then reproduce their non-physical plans in the physical world.  Only the Bible provides a worldview by which to account for this – as well as accounting for why they built it and put an idol inside it.”  And further, the presuppositionalist could press Hitchens by challenging him to explain how his worldview produces logic, numbers, art, science, morality, and every other concept he uses to attack Christian Truth.  He won’t be able to!  Why?  Because his unbelieving interpretation of the world (which, of course, is also explained in Scripture) does not accord with the way reality actually is!

The Christian apologist would then outline the Biblical Worldview to show the unbeliever how it accounts for all the concepts he has been misusing to rebel against his Creator.  From there it is a short step to the Cross!  Christ died not only to save us from our sins, but to save our intellects from dreaming up unsatisfactory and idolatrous interpretations of ourselves and our world.

There is more to say, but this should suffice to explain the rudiments of presuppositional apologetics.  By it the Christian can “bring every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), without yielding one inch to the presuppositions of the ungodly who stand justly under the wrath of the God (Rom. 1:18) whom deep-down they know in their heart of hearts (Rom. 1:19-22; Jn. 3:19-21; Psa. 14:1).

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22 comments

  1. Thanks for that good and helpful summary. I’ve never read Van Til, but this makes me want to give him a go.

  2. John Warwick Montgomery promotes evidentialist apologetics and has attacked the validity of presuppositionalism. Is he attacking the positions of Gordon H. Clark, E.J. Carnell,and Francis Schaeffer? And would you consider his arguments misguided towards Van til?

    1. Ross,

      Montgomery is not attacking the three men you mentioned because their ‘presuppositionalism’ to a greater or lesser extent, is not presuppositionalism. Clark worked from deductive logic and axioms rather than transcendental arguments (i.e. for the possibility of anything being what it is as Van Til did). Carnell’s touchstone was the law of non-contradiction and common ground. Schaeffer was a hybrid, using Van Til for ‘taking the roof off’ but speaking of the best hypothesis as Clark and Carnell.

      Montgomery was answered by Van Til himself in his festschrift, but Greg Bahnsen’s 100 page reply to Montgomery shows that he does not fully appreciate the Van Tillian approach.

  3. Paul, must presuppositionalism be tied to Calvinist/Reformed or at least Calvinistic theology? I have read many Christian teachers dismissing presuppositionalism out of hand simply because Val Til and Clark were Calvinists. I heard there are a few theologically-minded Arminians who espouse for presuppositionalism, they are pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. Or it has probably more to do with most average churches’ dismissal of apologetics as the hobby horse for intellectual believers or pastors only.

    Also an observation myself: evangelical Anglicans (Sydney Anglicans, Conservative Evangelical Anglicans in the Church of England in the UK, represented by the likes of Oak Hill College and Moore College, and Sydney Missionary & Bible College) avoid presuppositionalism, even though they are considered Calvinist and rub shoulders with scholars who know Van Til, Clark, etc. There seems to be just as many Calvinists who use classical or even evidential apologetics, as the example of Sydney Anglicans shows. (For your information, my own church seems to rely classical and evidential apologetics, we use Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, R.C. Sproul, C.S. Lewis for apologetics)

    1. Joel,

      It is very important not to group Van Til together with Gordon Clark. The only thing they have in common as far as apologetics is concerned is the NAME “presuppositional.” However, the term means very different things to Van Til and Clark. Clark’s “presuppositionalism” is essentially deductive. Hence it is not really presuppositional because it does not inquire into the preconditions for deduction.

      Does it demand Calvinism? I don’t think so, especially once one understands Arminius’s position, which strongly implies Divine sovereignty.

      1. Definitely agree Paul. I really can’t see at layman’s level any believers can object to the viewpoint that 1. our Fall has clouded our judgment on matters of God; and 2. without the push by the Holy Spirit no one is capable of believing in Jesus by his/her own will.

        When these two add up together, presuppositional apologetics should make sense to every Christian.

        Will take on board that Clark and Van Til are different. Thanks for pointing this out.

  4. Paul, also I just looked up at this article from The Briefing (Sydney Anglicans’ Christian teaching magazine). In the back issue from 1990 Tony Payne, Colin Marshall, and Phillip Jensen argued that the best apologetics approach is a combination between presuppositional and evidentialist approaches. Do they have a point?:

    —————-

    “In summary, we could perhaps say that the Presuppositionalist overstresses the distortion of the mind and that the Evidentialist overestimates the soundness of the mind.

    Part of the problem is that the Bible does not speak of something abstract like ‘the mind’ or ‘reason’ having fallen, but man. Our estrangement from God is primarily personal, not rational. Having rejected the truth at the most fundamental level and worshipped created things rather than the Creator, we are cut off from God in a profound way. We may be able to follow the various arguments, but we will have no love for the conclusion. It is a moral defect, not a mental one.”

    http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/1990/07/two-ways-to-apologize/

    1. The follow up article by Payne, Marshall, and Jensen on their recommended apologetics. They indicate that the Scriptures contain both that could be said to be presuppositional, and evidential apologetics, and recommend a blended apologetics approach that contains these 4 steps:

      Step 1: Clarifying the objection
      Step 2: Show that the alternative is unliveable
      Step 3: Show that Christianity is liveable
      Step 4: The Jesus actor

      http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/1990/07/an-apologetic-armoury/

      1. This four step viewpoint again shows that they don’t understand Van Til. You don’t, as a third step, shoe Christianity to be livable, you show that unless Christianity is true nothing makes sense.

        If I am charitable I might concede that this is just a posited Van Tilian presentation, but it looks to me that what is being proposed here is Schaefferean apologetics, not Van Til.

      2. Thanks Paul. I think Sydney Anglicans including Tony Payne seem to be more influenced by Schaeffer than Van Til, although they are aware of Van Til as a reformed heavyweight. Van Til is certainly not one that Sydney Anglicans recommend (I never seen his name crop up in my church), but Schaeffer yes, kind of.

      3. Alf, thanks for the link, that’s quite illuminating. My church is more into the Sproul Sr orbit, and I think he flip flop[s between day-age theory and six day creation himself, and currently leaning on day-age understanding of Genesis 1. Coincidentally Sproul is also a big evidentialist (I think he is a classical apologist) too.

        Somehow Sproul Sr’s position is where my church circle stands too – on both creation days understanding of Genesis 1-2 and apologetics approach.

    2. The ‘Two Ways’ article shows that these men do not understand Van Til’s presuppositionalism. The key argument of this school is that unless the biblical worldview is presupposed (either explicitly or implicitly) one cannot make sense of any proposition.

  5. Dr. H,

    Allow me to ask a question or two regarding presuppositionalism. I am fairly familiar with the system — having gone through Bahnsen’s course on apologetics (on audio tape) and studying it somewhat in Seminary so far.

    First: although internal consistency is necessary for something to be “true,” something can be entirely consistent with itself and still be “untrue”. Presup seems to tout that it is correct because it, unlike any other system, is the only consistent one.
    Second: Presup likes to boast that it is the only system that can “make sense of the facts” about the world that we observe. But according to presup, no fact is neutral and all are interpreted through a worldview. So the position is that the correct worldview is Christianity because it is the only consistent one, and the facts about the world are explained by Presup if and only if presup is assumed from the outset.

    Don’t you think this is a bit question-begging or circular? I understand that being “circular” is inevitible at the ultimate level, but what is stopping some other system from effectively saying : “our system is consistent [neccessary, but not sufficient for truth] and explains the facts about the world when one presupposes our system.”

    This could hypothetically happen, could it not? What is our response?

    Please understand that I appreciate a lot of what presup has to offer. I really get a lot out of “transcendental” argumentation — a hallmark of presuppositionalism.I’m just trying to delve a bit deeper, and in light of the fact that there are indeed different “versions” of presup, I thought you might be able to point me in the right direction.

    Finally, when Jesus and the Apostles appeal to evidence (i.e. the Resurrection, miracles, etc.), how do you think that fits in to the presup vs. evidentialist debate? (Jn 10:38 as a primary example).

    1. Alex, these are good questions.

      1. Internal consistency is going to be a mark of a true system, but it may be a mark of a false one too. That is why Van Tillian presuppositionalism does not cite it as anything other than an ancillary aspect of the true worldview. However, E.J. Carnell, Francis Schaeffer and others do cite internal consistency as a key aspect of truth. Hence, this question is more aimed at them than Van Til.

      2. Van Til did not only stress that the biblical outlook could make sense of the facts, but that it was the only worldview which had a proper philosophy of fact. That means that only through the God of the Bible do we have a preinterpreting mind that ensures the facts are comprehensible with each other. Monisms clearly can’t relate one fact to another because in the end they deny particulars, seeing the world as essentially one. Atheism cum naturalism cannot do anything other than construct facts subjectively (through interpretations) much like someone building something out of legos. There is no “True” interpretation, neither can there be. There can only be what works. Islam has a god who cannot be “bound” by anything in his nature to reliably relate one thing to another eternally.

      Rather than speaking of making sense of the facts per se Van Til would speak of making proper sense of anything. So, to underline these first two issues, the matter of consistency is not uppermost for Van Til.

      3. Van Til was forthright about the importance of the use of evidence. He was a supporter of arguments from science, archaeology, history, etc. He even had time for the traditional theistic arguments. The big difference was that he rejected the independent use of evidence. That is, these were corroborative not independent of the worldview. Jesus appeals to His works to back up His words (claims) since they ought to have believed the words and works as witnessing to His Messianic identity. But He referred them to the Scriptures, not an independent assessment.

      I hope these responses help.

      God bless,

      Paul

      1. “That means that only through the God of the Bible do we have a preinterpreting mind that ensures the facts are comprehensible with each other”

        Yes, that makes sense, and I am beginning to remember more of Bahnsen after reading your comments, and your other articles on PA (interesting stuff, and well written!). It seems that PA basically says that Christianity is the ONLY worldview that has a proper “philosophy of fact,” as you put it — and indeed, this makes for a very formidable apologetic.

        What if the skeptic says that there is another philosophy of fact out there — a better one — that we just haven’t discovered yet, and that Christianity is one “consistent” way of looking at things, but in the end, it is not ultimately the “correct” way? I understand this argument is very weak — an argument from silence, and one that begs the question (the premise that there CAN be another adequate “philosophy of fact”), but still, in terms of a philosophical “knock-down” argument (as William Lane Craig likes to say….a philosophical iron-clad defeater), what would you have to say?

        Alex

  6. This way of objecting to the biblical worldview really constitutes an untenable clinging to a hoped-for answer that is not Christian. It is pure blind faith and is a cop out. That is the first thing to be said.

    I would also say that such an objection ranks up there beyond saying that Luxembourg might establish the next world empire or that the Faeroe Islands will win the World Cup. It is not a sane position to hold.

    But finally I would come back to the fact that if you HAVE an explanatory system which accounts for all the data, material and immaterial, moral and rational, your excuses for looking to a will-o-the-wisp potential defeater to better that system indicates a moral and rational corruption in the person holding out for such a thing. Again, it would be like a person hoping against all hope that Major League Baseball might one day admit cricket teams into its fold. Anyone can live in cloud-cuckoo land if they choose to, but they are not to be entertained as having sane observations on reality.

    1. Yes, those are great points and I appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

      I think you writing on PA has given me causes to further study the system, with particular emphasis on understanding the differences between the variations within PA. Van Til seems like a great place to start, based on your reviews.

      Thanks Dr. H!

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