Presuppositional Apologetics


This essay will attempt to demonstrate that the presuppositional apologetic method is a potent posture yet falls short as a methodology for comprehensibly demonstrating the legitimacy of the Christian worldview. Presuppositional apologetics is a systematic defense of Christian theism based on the assumption of certain basic propositions. While it is often associated with fideism which is placing faith above reason, not all presuppositionalists are fideists.[1] In fact, the presuppositonalist would argue that reason itself proves God’s existence. The apologist simply assumes the truth of Christianity to varying degrees and argues from that platform. This varies from a fideistic position that non-Christians are so corrupted by their sin nature that they are incapable of responding to evidence to a more modest position that belief in God is properly basic. The rationale offered by presuppositionalists is that everyone presupposes basic premises which define their worldview. It is certainly true that some beliefs such as the law of non-contradiction must be presupposed for rational discourse to be possible. Accordingly, this is known as a properly basic belief. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has convincingly argued that belief in God can also be held as properly basic.[2] The different presuppositional approaches all share this epistemological foundation yet vary on issues of truth, scope of human depravity and use of evidence.

Norman Geisler delineates four main approaches based on their means of establishing truth: revelational, rational, systematic consistency and practical presuppositionalism.[3] The revelational approach championed by Cornelius Van Til is perhaps the most well-known and also the most fideistic. He boldly proclaimed, “that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning.”[4] This style presupposes the authority of scripture and also that those who do not hold this presupposition are incapable of even basic reasoning.Greg Bahnsen is advocate and teacher of Van Til’s method. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries is another modern day practitioner of this Van Tilian style.[5] Here is James discussing the topic:

Rational presuppositionalism is a less strident variant employed by Gordon Clark and Carl F. H. Henry that allows that the secular mind still can use logic and reason. The test for truth is the law of non-contradiction.[6] John Carnell and Gordon Lewis pioneered a method, systematic consistency, which uses the rational approach with the additional qualifications that it must take account of all knowledge and meet man’s basic needs.[7] The style most open to non-believers is the practical approach in the style of Francis Schaeffer who set about demonstrating that all other worldviews are not livable in a consistent fashion.[8] These approaches share the assumption of Biblical revelation yet vary on discerning truth and the scope of unregenerate depravity. There seems to be valid thinking behind each variety and I maintain respect for the respective apologists even if I do not entirely agree with all of their methodology.

It seems reasonable for believers to assume theism because the average Christian does not have time to master complicated philosophical arguments. However, trained apologists should be able to employ those arguments to provide warrant for the average believer. Yet some presuppositionalists fail to distinguish between belief in God and belief that God exists. Many presuppositionalists completely reject traditional apologetics as a futile concession to the skeptic’s methods.[9] Yet we all use the same rules of logic. A principle criticism offered by Geisler is that there is a confusion of epistemology and ontology. He writes,

The Christian fideist may very well be right about the fact that there is a God, but this begs the question unless he can tell how he knows this is the case. God may indeed have revealed himself to us through the Bible, but how do we know that the Bible is the Word of God?  [10]

Van Til did not seem to mind question begging. His style is tactically advantageous but it is unlikely to influence non-Christians. While it is true that men suppress the truth, evidential apologetics causes even hardened skeptics like Antony Flew to change their minds. Ultimately one should remember that Jesus and the apostles appealed to evidence, (Jn 2:23, 1 Cor. 15:3-7).

This essay has briefly summarized the presuppositional method and its four approaches. God’s existence and biblical revelation were defined as the basic foundation. The different styles were differentiated by the scope of their assumption and their test for truth. Critique was offered that the method strongly proclaims that Christianity is true but falls short of adequately explaining why it is true. A hybrid approach along the lines of Schaeffer’s technique in Escape From Reason and other works are worthy of further study. I must admit I am very interested in the ideas and techniques employed. It seems that there are some valuable tactics and truths in this method yet is not entirely convincing.

This site is powerful example of how the presuppositional method can be employed: Proof That God Exists


[1]Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics, Includes Index. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 47.

[2] Thomas Provenzola. “Apologetics, Reformed.” In The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, by Ed Hindson, & Ergun Caner, ( Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 59.

[3]Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 607.

[4]Cornelius Van Til and William Edgar, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing     Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003).

[5] White, James. Alpha and Omega Ministries. n.d. http://aomin.org/articles/bio.html (accessed 10 08, 2010).

[6] Geisler, Baker, 607

[7] Geisler, Baker, 607

[8] Geisler, Baker, 607.

[9] Mark Coppenger. “Presuppositonalism.” In The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, by Ed Hindson, & Ergun Caner, 401-404. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 402

[10]Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 61.

About Cris Putnam
Logos Apologia is the ministry of Cris D. Putnam. The mission of Logos Apologia is to show that logic, science, history and faith are complementary, not contradictory and to bring that life-changing truth to everybody who wants to know.

Comments

  1. D says:

    Did you explain why/how the presuppositional approach “falls short as a methodology for comprehensibly demonstrating the legitimacy of the Christian worldview”…? I didn’t really see much about that…

    • Cris Putnam says:

      Hi D 🙂 Yes, I devoted an entire paragraph to that (2nd to the last). I think there is an important role for evidentialism. The main idea being the difference between belief in God and belief that God exists. Presuppositionalism is great for declaring Christianity is true but doesn’t offer much as to why that is the case. Personally, I like to know why. That being said, I want to further study presuppositionialism as it has some powerful techniques.

  2. D says:

    Hi Chris… Ok, I don’t I think I really absorbed a lot of what you were saying in my first read-through… (I must confess I don’t usually approach these questions/topics using the technical or academic terms that you throw around.) I did read a lot of Francis Schaeffer many years back, and so I think I’m fairly familiar with the broader idea of presuppositions and propositional truth, but to be honest, I’ve never really heard people talk about “presuppositionalism” as an “ism” before…

    One of my favorite quotes I ever heard dealing with the Law of Non-Contradiction was from Ravi Zacharias, where he is sharing about a conversation he had with some professor guy who was trying to tell him, “You know Ravi, you’re problem is that you don’t understand the difference between East and West” (a hilarious statement itself considering that Ravi is from India, but anyways…) The professor goes on to say, “In the west, your philosophy is that of ‘Either/Or’. You can believe either this, or that, but not both. In the East, we have the philosophy of the “Both/And”, where we can believe both this AND that…”

    Ravi chuckles and then answers, “Yes, but even in the East people look both ways before crossing the street, because it’s either the bus, or me, but not both!”

    What we truly believe is evidenced by how we live, not by the elaborate philosophies we try to articulate…

    • Cris Putnam says:

      I have heard that quip from Ravi too and I love it. Classic! Presuppositionalism is a school of apologetics in reformed circles that in its more extreme forms denies the use of any evidence at all. I think that goes too far. Look up Cornelius Van Til as he is the father of that school. The circular reasoning bothers me too.

      Francis Schaeffer is favorite of mine as well and I would put him on the very far edge of that school as he uses evidential arguments too. Some scholars do not categorize him as a presuppostionalist at all. I really like his style a lot and want to emulate it. I have read True Spirituality, The God who is There, and Escape From Reason so far, although I have his complete works in my libronix library. I want to read them all. He also made a video series in the 1970s that I have watched through a few times. He was a prophet! He saw things coming that are coming to pass right now.

      Here’s a playlist which has 2 speeches and then the entire documentary How Should We Then Live:

  3. D says:

    Yeah… The works of Francis Schaeffer were really inspiring to me as a young person trying to make sense out of the faith that I had been raised up in… I think out of everything of his that I read, the biggest thing that stuck with me was his ability to look at various philosophers, theologians, artists, etc., and trace connections that went from a singular source to larger swaths of people over generations. He really understand that ideas could start out it what seemed like isolated arenas, and wind up influencing the “regular people” through all sorts of means…

    Looking back now however, I find myself wondering if the “weakness” in his perspective was possibly that he failed to really appreciate how much the spiritual realm is involved in that whole process. He seemed to more or less believe that ideas and philosophies mainly originated from the imaginations of men, without much regard for the possibility that most false beliefs and ideas originate from a demonic source, and that “doctrines of demons” is not simply a figure of speech… (I could be wrong about that though, it’s been a while since I’ve read his books…)

    The one thing that kinda makes me sad about Schaeffer, is learning about how it was his son, Franky, was the one who convinced him to get involved with the whole political arena, speaking at big churches, meeting presidents, etc. I didn’t realize, (until recently after hearing an interview with Franky Schaeffer on NPR), what a critical role Francis Schaeffer ended up playing in the formation of what would become the “Christian Coalition” and the “Religious Right”… I think he got a little off track towards the end of his life, believing that Christians are called to “redeem their culture” using political means rather than simply preaching the gospel as he did in his earlier days at L’abri…

    • Cris Putnam says:

      I think that is a very cogent analysis. I agree with the concept that a lot of false ideas and philosophies are from the spiritual realm. I doubt Schaeffer would argue against that idea but like you i am unsure if he ever hit it head on. He probably did… I’ll let you know if I find something. This verse speaks volumes:

      See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col 2:8)

      In the ancient world the term stoicheia was widely used for spirits in Persian religious texts, magical papyri, astrological documents, and some Jewish texts. Paul is likely using it here to refer to demonic spirits.

      I tend to agree on the political end as well. But its hard to blame people for fighting for their values.

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