Clearing the Presuppositional Malaise

sheepskateRegrettably, much of what is labeled “Evangelical apologetics” these days fails in regards to two points. First, Christian apologetics has been separated into a philosophical category apart from being grounded in Scripture, and then secondly, apologetics is divided from evangelism as if it is a semi-related discipline.  In my mind, apologetic methodology is pointless if it is not built upon the biblical text and doesn’t meaningfully engage sinners as to their need for Gospel salvation.

Furthermore, it has been my observation that ministries instructing Christians in the field of apologetics intentionally ignore those two vital points. In fact, a number of popular apologetic teachers will go so far as to tell their audiences that the Bible should be the last thing a Christian brings to the discussion with an unbeliever. Other teachers make apologetics dependent upon a Christian having to be familiar with complicated philosophical jargon or so-called empirical “proofs” for the existence of God and the Person of Jesus Christ.

Now: I consider myself to be a presuppositionalist. I believe presuppositionalism is a more biblically robust apologetic approach than what most Christians are familiar with. I would also like to think my presuppositionalism is immune from being entangled with philosophical snares, but it is not.

Presuppositionalism was the apologetic methodology developed by Dutch Reformed Calvinists in the 1800s and made known in the U.S. during the 20th century primarily by theologian, Cornelius Van Til, and a number of his students like Greg Bahnsen and John Frame. The methodology focuses upon defending the entirety of Christianity as a worldview and engaging unbelievers at the foundational level of their worldview.

Without getting into the specifics of all that pertains to presuppositionalism, the focus upon worldviews is what makes the methodology superior in contrast to the other popular views of apologetics. Rather than compartmentalizing individual arguments and calling the unbeliever to reason with the Christian as to validity of each one as “proofs” for the Christian faith, presuppositionalism begins by “presupposing” the truth of Christianity, the reality that ALL sinners without exception know the true God exists, and calls the sinner to repent of the erroneous “presuppositions” that suppress the truth of God and shape his unbelieving worldview.

However, even though I believe presuppositionalism to be the best approach for defending the Christian faith, there is a big tendency for presuppositional practitioners to become just as weighed down with philosophical baggage as their non-presuppositional counterparts. That is seen when they attempt to press their opponents to provide a justifiable reason, according to their chosen belief system, for such things like moral absolutes, the universal laws of logic, and other similar “truth claims.”

Conversations about logic and absolutes, while helpful for the most part, do require some understanding of philosophy and the intellectual ability to challenge unbelievers with that knowledge. Additionally, the whole evangelistic encounter can quickly become a quagmire of unnecessary, impromptu debate the Christian has to slosh through with the unbeliever.  And additionally, the chest-thumping attitude often displayed by many young presuppositional proponents against folks who take a different apologetic approach doesn’t help with advancing their cause.

Now. Having stated all of that, let me make myself clear so that I am not misunderstood. I certainly believe there can be a place for presenting philosophical arguments when we share our faith with non-Christians if the opportunity so arises. Moreover, I appreciate how presuppositionalism places unbelievers on the defensive, moving the evangelistic encounter from haggling over how to interpret evidence to actually challenging them to defend their core “truth” claims about reality, life, and how people are to live. Presuppositionalism is especially useful in this area when talking with atheists. And let me hasten to add that I have personally learned much from hearing presuppositionalists, like Greg Bahnsen for example, engage unbelievers in discussions and debate. Listening to those interactions has helped me to sharpen my own skills as an apologist and evangelists.

What I am saying, however, is that our focus should not stay centered exclusively upon philosophical matters, and because of the emphasis upon philosophy, presuppositionalists have the habit of making presuppositionalism more difficult than it needs to be.

thoughtcaptiveI can recall, many years ago now, reading Richard Pratt’s short book, Every Thought Captive, a book advertised as a high school level introduction to presuppositional apologetics. In spite of its claim as being for high school students, it took me a couple of times reading through it to get the basics of what he was presenting. Maybe it’s just me, but why should apologetic methodology be so hard?

The average church-goer in the pew is clueless about laws of logic and the transcendental argument for the existence of God. Granted, over time they can be taught about those things, but starting out in our evangelism by placing our emphasis on those areas is not only discouraging for the average church goer, it also shifts our presentation away from the pages of Scripture.

As I have interacted with my presuppositional brethren, read their books and listened to their lectures, I have become more and more convinced that a good many of them have overlooked the fundamental disconnect between methodology and actual, “street level” presentation. Such an attitude has been illustrated to me when young-gun presuppositionalists have dismissed certain criticism of their approach, waving them off as silly or outright stupid. Particularly when it comes to genuine practical application in the day-to-day lives of God’s people.

I believe we can do better than dismissing helpful, constructive criticisms out of hand. If we are serious about what Peter writes in his first epistle to set apart Christ as Lord, part of that sanctifying process must be molding our methodology and practice in apologetics. Hammering out bumps and smoothing edges. I want my methodology and practice to fit together in a way that honors the Lord. Our apologetic methodology needs to flow out of the biblical text and actually be meaningfully evangelistic.

Allowing this brief article to serve as an introduction, I want to provide an outline explaining what I have learned from presuppositionalism and show how I have personally made the methodology practical in my own Christian walk. That is what I hope to take up next.

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32 thoughts on “Clearing the Presuppositional Malaise

  1. I had to read “The Defense of the Faith” twice in a literal row 25 years ago. I finished it, and became of aware of a strained wince on my face as I pondered what I’d just read for a good while. I picked it up and started over. It was like I could smell a sumptuous feast on the other side of a wall with a door I couldn’t find.

    I don’t remember the exact quote of what I was reading at the time, but the second time through the shade went up and the light came flooding in. I felt like an idiot for it having to have been pointed out to me. I actually chuckled out loud: “of course. How could it possibly be otherwise?” I understood the Godhood of God like never before. I’m not being over dramatic. Since then I’ve read most of what Dr. Van Til has written and repeatedly listened to all 78 known extant recordings of his voice. Today it’s second nature. Well actually first nature. “Don’t ya see?” :)

    Jesus Christ defeated my sin and death. God used John Calvin in his institutes to show me what that meant and Cornelius Van Til taught me how to think like it was true.

    This my thang Fred. THE only exception I would take with you here is that Frame is no Van Tillian (we’ll forget that) Bahnsen certainly was though.

    The bottom line is, either God is, while certainly the biggest, what amounts to just another object of our independent investigation, OR is Himself the standard and framework within which ANY investigation can happen at all. He says the latter. I agree.

    This should be good, I look forward to it.

  2. Looking forward to the next post too. I remember how back in 1997 I stumbled on Van Til’s “Survey of Christian Epistemology” and it took my eight attempts to just read the book all the way through. Van Til was certainly no Stephanie Meyer…yikes.

    I also remember struggling with the practical usage of Kantian transcendentals in an apologetic encounter “on the street”, and Bahnsen wasn’t much practical help as well, though he was far and away more helpful than raw Van Til.

    I’ve found that a bunch of what passes for “presup” these days basically boils down to making atheists look stupid as an end in itself, and seems to look to me like the philosophical equivalent of clubbing baby seals.

    I haven’t really spent as much time working out my methodology as I would like too, but I remember how much reading Zemek’s doctoral thesis changed the way I think about presup (and I’d like to work out just what that looks like on the street). I recognized just how much we need to actually start with building exegetical foundations from the text of scripture, and I am becoming more and more convinced that few have done that at the necessary level of foundational depth. Only from there can we mount a thoroughly biblical framework and methodology…but I say this fully admitting that I am woefully out of touch with the current state of the debate.

    We’ll have to chat about this more one day and I definitely look forward to reading your future installments.

  3. HERE is my collection of Van Til docs. The copyrighted ones still in print aren’t there obviously, but some great stuff is there. His treatise on scripture and natural revelation is awesome.

  4. Looking forward to what you have to share. I do share your concern for the need for Presuppositionalists to be more exegetical/biblically driven. Some I now have stress Presuppositionalists’ need to be more theological but I think it sounds more proper to emphasize being biblical.
    At the same time I feel there are also young bucks Presuppositionalists who engage in Presuppositional apologetics online that also don’t know what they are talking about philosophically and make basic philosophical mistakes or load videos of them teaching people apologetics and make claims about the history of philosophy that’s kind of embarassing. I think a good remedy to this must begin with stressing the need to be biblical as a priority; certainly there’s a place for philosophical growth but I suspect some of the cage stage mentality of young Presuppers is because they like the philosophical destructiveness of this form of apologetics.

  5. “I suspect some of the cage stage mentality of young Presuppers is because they like the philosophical destructiveness of this form of apologetics.”

    Good point SlimJim!

  6. Presuppositionalism might work in some Christian inner circles, but it convinces nobody outside of them. Anyone who has had even rudimentary knowledge of logic understand the flaw of begging the question. Presuppositionalism doesn’t even make an effort to conceal the flaw: It basically just declares something by fiat.

  7. There is no such thing as a “circular argument.” Everyone has to argue in a “circle” because in order to establish the truth about something, other previous truths have to be assumed or presupposed for the argued truth to be considered truth.

    Take for example the idea of a meter stick. How do you know your meter stick is actually a meter? Well, there is some “official” meter stick at the bureau of weights and measures that is considered the “official” meter length off of which all meter sticks are based. But how do we know that “official” stick is a meter? Well, because it is a meter, that’s why.

    Additionally, Christianity is a faith built upon revelation. That revelation is grounded in the character of the only one true God who has revealed Himself not only to all men, but specifically to His redeemed people. The so-called circle ends with the character of that most certain and real God.

  8. It is certainly true that other previous truths have to be assumed in a debate. However, both sides have to agree on what those basic truths are before any meaningful discussion can take place. Even R. C. Sproal trashes presuppositionalism. Paul is correct when he states that these arguments convince no one outside of the Christian inner circle.

  9. Steve (Paul)
    The fact that it is, as you write, “certainly true that previous truths have to be assumed in a debate” proves what I wrote. Everyone argues circularly. Thus, the argument that presuppositionalists argue in a circle is on its face bogus.

    RC trashed presuppositionalism, but that is because he is an inconsistent Calvinist and too enslaved to the Aquinas’ Islamized reading of Aristotle. RC has always had a deficient understanding of the noetic effects of the fall on mankind. And I say that as a guy who loves RC.

  10. Fred says: “[RC trashed presuppositionalism], but that is because he is an inconsistent Calvinist and too enslaved to the Aquinas’ Islamized reading of Aristotle. RC has always had a deficient understanding of the noetic effects of the fall on mankind. And I say that as a guy who loves RC.”

    Ya just went up a couple notches on my respectomometer brother. (Not that you were ever low). Sproul is a horribly inconsistent Calvinist and a bad philosopher. The presuppositional apologetic method is nothing more than the Westminster doctrines of God and man carried into the defense of the faith. You are exactly right. The devil’s lie of autonomous human thought, and fallen, sinful autonomous human thought at that, was smuggled into the church by Aquinas through his sycophantic veneration of Aristotle. In DIRECT defiance of the first chapter of first Corinthians.

    Sproul’s disastrous Greek/thomistic/romanist epistemology exalts man to the place of God and reduces God to, while certainly the largest, what is in the end just another object of our sinful, finite, contingent investigation.

    NO!!!!!

    God who is
    ” the alone foundation of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and [whom] in his sight all things are open and manifest; [whose] knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain. “
    HE is the beginning, end and unassailable standard, who, not merely should or even MUST be, but IS, in every case, assumed by every man before ANY investigation whatever can even be so much as conceived of at all.

    Sinners because they have no choice and saints because it is their joy (or supposed to be anyway) SO THERE!!! :D

    I would humbly commend a year long DEBATE with one of Clark’s guys that I’ve been in for about a year now. A ton of this explored, though we did get into mud a couple times for a minute.

  11. What do you think of Francis Schaeffer? I have enjoyed reading through his works (almost done with volume 4 of 5) and think his method of ripping the roof off of the worldview of unbelievers and show the truth of the gospel is really good. Just curious where you’d say he falls in line as far as his apologetics.

  12. The big problem I have with presuppositional adherents is that every single adherent I have encountered, on and offline, start with the presupposition that everybody knows in their heart that the Bible is true; therefore, apologetics is not about defending or proving the Bible (after all, all people KNOW it is the truth) but about getting people to stop lying to themselves and to others.

    When I rephrased it that way to one particular adherent, he said, “Yes, exactly.”

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  15. I would clarify by saying they know the God revealed in Scripture is true. That is what Paul says in Romans 1 and 2. It is probably more accurate to say I start with the presupposition that the Bible is true and I don’t need to waste my time trying to establish its authority with an unbeliever. That never happened in any of Paul’s encounters as recorded in Acts. I believe like Paul that it already has the necessary divine authority to be used as my authority.

  16. And herein lies the problem with Arminian…. anything. Which is what every apologetic method except this one is. As soon as we start “proving” the gospel, we are at that moment assuming that fallen man is susceptible to God’s truth as long as it is presented in a sufficiently persuasive package of propositions.

    There is a vast difference between “testimony” and “evidence”. What John opens his first epistle with is “testimony”. “this is what happened to me”

    When Paul points to those who were still alive who had witnessed the risen Christ, that was testimony. “Go ask them”.

    What we do today is tell a man who is dead in sin and by nature a child of wrath to exercise that nature in an allegedly “neutral” investigation of the God without whom, none of us would even exist. In direct contradiction to the apostle who proclaims in Romans 1 that God Himself has MADE Himself known them to the point where His “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been CLEARLY PERCEIVED, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So THEY ARE WITHOUT EXCUSE” (emphasis mine).

    The kid in “God’s NOT Dead” illustrated today’s insolent attitude of Arminian apologetics perfectly though:. “WE ARE GONNA PUT GOD ON TRIAL!” (evidence that demands a verdict) You can count me out thank you very much.

    As for the classics? Like Sproul and Geisler? The bible is not interested and therefore neither am I, in proving the possible existence of any god in general, but the actual existence of none in particular. The very first very famous first line of all the bible remains: IN THE BEGINNING GOD…

    It is one long “testimony” that simply demands I believe it or die. It makes no attempt to satisfy my arrogant probings, as if the Lord of the universe owed me an explanation for something.

    The lesson I use for children (This comes up often) is a drawing of a big king on a big tall throne with a little person standing in front of it. “See that king boys n girls? That’s how you see yourself before Jesus saves you. Staring down at God deciding whether He’s really there and whether He gets to be king or not. After He saves you? You see that He was the King all along. ”

    Or that’s’ the way it’s supposed to work, but unfortunately there are many in the church attempting to live their lives in the last Adam while clinging to the mind of the first.

  17. I remember hearing John Gerstner many years ago saying about Bahnsen, “If anything, he is even better than the Old Man himself.” (a reference to Van Til and his presuppositional apologetics) This was high praise coming from someone who didn’t hand it out lightly, and who was not committed to presuppositionalism.

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  19. People are not convinced by any type of argument, unless the Holy Spirit opens the mind to understand the things of God. Giving an answer is not the same as convincing you of that answer.

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  21. Your views of testimony vs. evidence is a meaningless distinction. The demand for evidence is the same as the demand for testimony: “prove that what you are saying is true.”

    As a general rule, they are not asserting that God was lying or made claims in the Bible that He had no right to make. They are asserting that the Bible was not written by Him.

    They aren’t demanding that He prove that what He said is true; they are demanding that WE prove that the Bible was what He said.

    Let me paraphrase something from People’s Court, about someone claiming legal rights they did not have. “You keep saying, ‘He has the right to not prove anything. He’s got the right to demand that others believe simply Him on his say-so. He’s got the right to refuse to be put on trial.’ And you’re right; He does have those rights. The key part is that He’s got those rights. You don’t. You don’t get to claim those rights for yourself on His behalf.”

  22. No problem. Sometimes, I am not as clear as I think I am.

    Basically, the assertion made by people who reject the Bible do not reject it on the grounds of, “I hate God, so I reject what He says.” Truly, most people do not consciously think that; they just believe that God is the one of their own imaginations.

    They are disputing the claim that the Bible is the Word of God. They are disputing our claim that it is what He said. God isn’t the one on trial; we are.

    Let me use an analogy. Someone shows up to your door, claiming that they are from the FBI, they have a warrant, and demand to search your house. If you demand to see proof of their claims, you are not declaring that you reject the FBI. Usually, you’re not even doubting that the FBI exists or has the authority to search your house with a warrant. You are demanding proof that the assertions made by the person at the door – that he represents the FBI and there is a valid search warrant – are true.

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  24. 072591 says: ” people who reject the Bible do not reject it on the grounds of, “I hate God, so I reject what He says.”</strong
    The bible begs to differ sir and therefore so do I. That is EXACTLY why they reject Him AND His word. They are criminals and capital ones at that. Enemies of God and lovers of sin. They will believe literally anything that they think provides them escape from accountability to Him. Whether directly conscious of it or not

    I must respectfully say as well, that your FBI analogy fails. People are not prepared to surrender their sin to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Paul, Augustine, Calvin and Van Til if only we can convince them that these ancient writings filled with superstitious mumbo jumbo are actually a revelation of this God. There’s no such thing as a believer in the living God who doubts His word.

    Unless they are presently regenerate members of the invisible body and bride of the risen Christ, they vociferously deny the FBI altogether. Until, as our friend Pierre says “the Holy Spirit opens the mind to understand the things of God.”

    072591 says: “Your views of testimony vs. evidence is a meaningless distinction. The demand for evidence is the same as the demand for testimony:”
    My view is the biblical one and that’s all that matters. Eyewitness testimony is not the same as “let’s look at some rocks together”. One is commanded and demonstrated and one is not.
    ——————————————————————————————————————-

  25. Sorry. Forgot to close one tag
    072591 says: ” people who reject the Bible do not reject it on the grounds of, “I hate God, so I reject what He says.”
    The bible begs to differ sir and therefore so do I. That is EXACTLY why they reject Him AND His word. They are criminals and capital ones at that. Enemies of God and lovers of sin. They will believe literally anything that they think provides them escape from accountability to Him. Whether directly conscious of it or not

    I must respectfully say as well, that your FBI analogy fails. People are not prepared to surrender their sin to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Paul, Augustine, Calvin and Van Til if only we can convince them that these ancient writings filled with superstitious mumbo jumbo are actually a revelation of this God. There’s no such thing as a believer in the living God who doubts His word.

    Unless they are presently regenerate members of the invisible body and bride of the risen Christ, they vociferously deny the FBI altogether. Until, as our friend Pierre says “the Holy Spirit opens the mind to understand the things of God.”

    072591 says: “Your views of testimony vs. evidence is a meaningless distinction. The demand for evidence is the same as the demand for testimony:”
    My view is the biblical one and that’s all that matters. Eyewitness testimony is not the same as “let’s look at some rocks together”. One is commanded and demonstrated and one is not.
    ——————————————————————————————————————-

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