Presuppositional apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics is a school of Christian apologetics, a field of Christian theology that aims to (1) present a rational basis for the Christian faith, (2) defend the faith against objections, and (3) expose the perceived flaws of other worldviews. [Frame (1994): p. 2.] Presuppositional apologetics is especially concerned with the third aspect of this discipline, though it generally sees the trifold distinction as a difference in emphasis rather than as delineating three separate endeavors. Presuppositional apologetics was developed and is most commonly advocated within Reformed circles of Christianity. [Sproul et al. (1984): p. 183.]

The key feature of this school is that it maintains the Christian apologist must hold the supernatural revelation contained in the Bible as its preeminent standard of thought. According to its advocates, apart from such presuppositions, one could not make sense of any human experience, and there could be no apologetics, because there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian. [Frame (2006).] In other words, presuppositionalists claim that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue on the basis of a different set of assumptions in which God may or may not exist, and Biblical revelation may or may not be true.

Presuppositionalists compare their presupposition against other ultimate standards such as reason, empirical experience, and subjective feeling. They do not use the prefix "pre-" ("before") to imply priority in time (that is, something that must be supposed in advance), not least because one cannot receive biblical revelation without using sense experience to read or hear it, reason to understand it, and emotion to be affected by it; rather, a presupposition in this context is something that comes "before" and has priority as the ultimate standard of right and wrong. [Frame (1987), p. 45: "A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition.... This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought. It merely applies the doctrine of scriptural infallibility to the realm of knowing."]

Comparison with other schools of apologetics

Presuppositionalists contrast their approach with the other schools of Christian apologetics by describing them as assuming that the world is intelligible apart from belief in the existence of God and then arguing on purportedly neutral grounds to support trusting the Christian Scriptures and the existence of God. Specifically, presuppositionalists describe Thomistic (also "Traditional" or "Classical") apologetics as concentrating on the first aspect of apologetics with its logical proofs for the existence of God, simply assuming common ground with the non-Christian and utilizing a piece-by-piece methodology. In this scheme, the common foundation of neutral brute facts leads to a generic concept of deity, then to the various characteristics of the Christian God as revealed in Scripture, and so forth. Piece-by-piece, Christian theology is built up from a neutral common ground.

Presuppositionalists believe that many of the classical arguments are logically fallacious, or don't prove enough, when used as arguments to prove the existence or character of God. [However, Thomas Aquinas never speaks of "proofs" for the existence of God "per se", and on one reading, his "ways" may be taken as demonstrations of the inner coherence of belief in God, rather than proofs. See Alister McGrath "The Dawkins Delusion?". Taken in this sense, Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, "et al"., have embraced the Traditional arguments.] They criticize both the assumption of neutrality and the "block house" or "piecemeal" method for failing to start at the level of the controlling beliefs of worldviews and implicitly allowing non-Christian assumptions from the start, thereby trying to build a Christian "house" on a non-Christian "foundation". [Van Til (1967): pp. 122-23, 126-29, 131-32.] [Bahnsen (1998): pp. 266-68.] Evidentialists demur from this assessment, claiming that presuppositionalism amounts to fideism because it rejects a neutral starting point for reasoning between the Christian and non-Christian.

The conclusion of evidential apologetics is that the Bible is more probably accurate about what it reports than not, thus the whole of Biblical revelation is probably true, and where we don't have absolute certainty we must accept the most probable theory. [Carnell (1948): pp. 113-18.] [Frame (1987): pp. 135-36.] The goal of presuppositional apologetics on the other hand, is to argue that the assumptions and actions of non-Christians require them to believe certain things about God, man and the world which they claim they do not believe. This type of argument is technically called a reductio ad absurdum in that it attempts to reduce the opposition to holding an absurd position; in this case, both believing in facts of Christian revelation (in practice) and denying them (in word). So in essence, evidential apologetics attempts to build from a common starting point in neutral facts, while presuppositional apologetics attempts to claim all facts for the Christian worldview as the only framework in which they are intelligible. [Van Til (1969): pp. 18-19.]

History of presuppositional apologetics

The origins of presuppositional apologetics are in the work of Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who began to adopt a presuppositional approach to defending the truth of his faith as early as the late 1920s. [Oliphint (1991).] Van Til personally disliked the term "presuppositional", as he felt it misrepresented his approach to apologetics, which he felt was focused primarily on the preeminence of the Bible as the ultimate criterion for truth, rather than denying or ignoring evidence. He did, however, accept the label reluctantly, given that it was a useful way of distinguishing between those who deny a neutral basis for apologetics and those who do not. His student, Greg Bahnsen, aided in some of the later developments of Van Tillian Presuppositionalism, and the Bahnsen Theological Seminary continues to promote presuppositional apologetics in its curriculum. John Frame, another student of Van Til, also continues to advocate a presuppositional approach, although he is generally more critical of Van Til's thought than Bahnsen was. [Fernandes (1997).] Bahnsen's protégé, Michael R. Butler, has also been active in advancing the field. Among his contributions is a technical, metalogical study of transcendental arguments in general and the Transcendental argument for the existence of God in particular, which he wrote for Bahnsen's festschrift. [Butler (2002): pp. 64-124.]

By 1952, presuppositional apologetics had acquired a new advocate in the Presbyterian theologian Gordon Clark. [Hoover (1984).] He embraced the label "presuppositional" since his approach to apologetics, following his Platonic epistemology, was more closely concerned with the logical order of assumptions than was Van Til. The differences between the two views on presuppositionalism, though few in number, caused a significant rift between the two men, and even after both Clark and Van Til had died, John Robbins (a theologian and former student of Clark's) and Bahnsen were often involved in heated exchanges. [See, for instance, [ Bahnsen response to Robbins] , [ Flood's response to Bahnsen] , and [ Bahnsen's response to Flood] - all from "Journey" magazine.]

As of 2005, presuppositional apologetics has established itself securely as a legitimate perspective on apologetics, although its appeal remains largely limited to Christians whose theology is Reformed in origin. In a recent book outlining the major schools of apologetics, the presuppositional approach was given equal time alongside much older and well-established schools of thought (the "classical" and "evidential" noted above, for example). [Frame (2000).] In general, Van Til's approach is far more popular and widespread than Clark's.

Varieties of presuppositionalism

Van Tillian presuppositionalism

Apologists who follow Van Til earned the label "presuppositional" because of their central tenet that the Christian must at all times presuppose the supernatural revelation of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth and error in order to know anything. Christians, they say, can assume nothing less because all human thought presupposes the existence of the God of the Bible. [Van Til (1967): pp. 351-56.] They claim that by accepting the assumptions of non-Christians, which fundamentally deny the Trinitarian God of the Bible, one could not even formulate an intelligible argument. Though Van Tillians do, at one point, "put themselves in the shoes" of the opponent, "for the sake of argument", to demonstrate where that position would lead, they claim that they can only do so because this is actually God's world, and man is actually God's creature, made in God's own image, and as such can never completely shut God out (in living or thinking) — hence there is always a common basis for dialog, even though it is, in the presuppositionalist's view, a basis which the opponent is not usually willing to acknowledge and which is decidedly biased rather than neutral.

According to Frame, " [Van Til's] major complaints against competing apologetic methods are theological complaints, that is, that they compromise the incomprehensibility of God, total depravity, the clarity of natural revelation, God's comprehensive control over creation, and so on." [Frame (n.d.).] Within their presuppositionalist framework, Van Tillians do often utilize foundational concepts for Thomistic and Evidentialist arguments (belief in the uniformity of natural causes, for example), but they are unwilling to grant that such beliefs are justifiable on "natural" (neutral) grounds. Rather, Van Tillians employ these beliefs, which they justify on Biblical grounds, in the service of "transcendental arguments", which are a sort of meta-argument about foundational principles, necessary preconditions, in which the non-Christian's worldview is shown to be incoherent in and of itself and intelligible only because it borrows capital from the Christian worldview. For example, where evidentialists would take the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system as a neutral common starting point and construct a cosmological argument for an unmoved mover, Van Tillian presuppositionalists would ask for a justification for the belief in the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system, given the worldview of the opponent, attempting to show that such a belief presupposes the Christian worldview and is ultimately incompatible with the opposing worldview. [Refer the Bahnsen-Stein debate, where Bahnsen argued that inductive reasoning cannot be justified on an Atheistic worldview.] Van Til summarized the main drive of his apologetic thus: "(T)he only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn't prove anything."

Van Tillians also stress the importance of reckoning with "the noetic effects of sin" (that is, the effects of sin on the mind), which, they maintain, corrupt man's ability to understand God, the world, and himself aright. In their view, as a fallen creature, man does know the truth in each of these areas, but he seeks to find a different interpretation — one in which, as C. S. Lewis said, he is "on the bench" and God is "in the dock." [Lewis (1970).] The primary job of the apologist is, therefore, simply to confront the unbeliever with the fact that, while he is verbally denying the truth, he is nonetheless practically behaving in accord with it. (Van Til illustrated this alleged inconsistency as a child, elevated on the father's knee, reaching up to slap his face, and Bahnsen used the analogy of a man breathing out air to make the argument that air doesn't exist.) [See Schwertley and Harrison.]

Another important aspect of the Van Tillian apologetical program is the distinction between "proof" and "persuasion". According to the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, man has ample proof in all of creation of God's existence and attributes but chooses to suppress it. [Bahnsen (2002): pp. 37-40.] Van Til likewise claimed that there are valid arguments to prove that the God of the Bible exists but that the unbeliever would not necessarily be persuaded by them because of his suppression of the truth, and therefore the apologist, he said, must present the truth regardless of whether anyone is actually persuaded by it. (Frame notes that the apologist is here akin to the psychiatrist who presents the truth about the paranoid's delusions, trusting that his patient knows the truth at some level and can accept it — though Frame would say the action of God in the Holy Spirit is also required for the unbeliever to accept ultimate truths. [Frame (1995): pp. 413-15.] [Frame (1994): pp. 62-3.] ) An implication of this position is that all arguments are "person relative" in the sense that one non-Christian might be persuaded by a particular argument and another might not be, depending on their background and experiences; even if the argument constitutes logically valid proof.

Clarkian presuppositionalism

Gordon Clark and his followers treat the truth of the Scriptures as the axiom of their system. The axiom cannot be proven or disproven; rather, the worldview that results from the axiom may be tested for consistency and comprehensiveness.fact|date=March 2007 Testing for internal contradiction exemplifies Clark's strict reliance on the laws of logic (He famously translates the first verse of the Gospel of John as "In the beginning was the Logic, and the Logic was with God, and the Logic was God.") [Gordon H. Clark (1998) pp. 115-122] By contrast, some Van Tillians have suggested that God might be "above the laws of logic" in some sense.fact|date=March 2007) Thus, in order to invalidate non-Christian worldviews, one must simply show how a different presupposition results in necessary logical contradictions.

However, Clark allowed that there could be more than one apparently coherent worldview and that one could not test all the implications of any worldview without omniscience.fact|date=March 2007 Nonetheless, he believed that this method was effective in many practical cases (when arguing against, for instance, secular humanism or dialectical materialism) and that, in the end, each of us must simply choose (that is, make an informed selection) from among seemingly consistent worldviews the one that most adequately answers life's questions and seems the most internally coherent. (Some Van Tillian critics suggest that the concept of coherence itself must be defined in terms of Christian presuppositions but is instead being used by Clark as a "neutral" principle for discerning the truth of any proposition.fact|date=March 2007)

Using this approach, Clark labored to expose the contradictions of many worldviews that were in vogue in his day and to defend the Christian worldview by proving its consistency over and against those who attacked it. His unflagging use of logic sometimes led him to what most Reformed theologians consider rather unorthodox ideas on such topics as the problem of evil — topics which are most often treated by theologians as paradoxes or apparent contradictions not resolvable by human logic. But Clark famously rejected the idea that Scripture teaches paradoxes and notion of "apparent contradiction", asking "apparent to whom?". He described an alleged biblical paradox as nothing more than "a charley-horse between the ears that can be eliminated by rational massage." [Crampton (1990).]

With regard to other schools of apologetics, Clark suggested that the cosmological argument was not just unpersuasive but also logically invalid (because it begged the question), and he similarly dismissed the other Thomistic arguments.fact|date=March 2007 As a staunch critic of empiricism, he did not tend to make much use of evidential arguments, which yield likelihoods and probabilities rather than logical certainties (that is, either coherence or incoherence).

Circularity objection

The chief criticism of presuppositionalism is that it uses circular reasoning, which is generally considered a logical fallacy. Specifically, critics point out that the presuppositional argument depends on a belief in the Bible as the source of truth because it is inspired by God, and God's existence is known because the Bible affirms it and the Bible is the source of truth. [Bahnsen (1998): p. 518 n. 122.] This charge would classify presuppositionalism within fideism, which holds that belief in God can only be partly justified by reason (if at all), but must finally be accepted or rejected by faith.

Van Tillians respond that, while circular logic can sometimes invalidate an argument, there is no other option in the case of ultimate presuppositions. They insist that all worldviews are essentially circular and cannot justify their foundational beliefs without relying upon their own core principles. In this view, one must distinguish between the logical fallacy of vicious (or, "small") circularity, versus the necessity for internal coherence ("large circularity"). In other words, presuppositionalists believe that the question is not, "Does my worldview's internal consistency depend on its own assumptions?" but rather, "Are my beliefs and practices consistent with my ultimate presupposition?" [Bahnsen (1998): p. 170 n. 42.] As an example, a presuppositionalist may point out that the secular scientific worldview depends on an assumption of empiricism, where truth is only considered viable when it is either the result of observation or is immediately inferred from that which is observed. However, this core assumption is ultimately neither observable, nor can it be immediately inferred from that which is observable. Therefore, it involves large circularity – internal coherence. [Bahnsen (2002): pp. 144.]

A perceived danger with embracing epistemological circularity is that the entire debate can collapse into a "Mexican standoff", where one simply chooses a set of beliefs and then uncritically holds on to them despite all arguments to the contrary or in lieu of any in favor. [Bahnsen (2002): pp. 72-75.] The Van Tillian solution to this potential problem is to look for internal consistency in a system where the initial premise (the existence of the Biblical God and the truth of His revelation) is also the culmination of all knowledge.

To extend an analogy of Van Til, if one starts with the belief in the existence of the Sun, and then all of the tests one can perform because of the light of the Sun confirm the initial belief, then initial belief is sound. This is not vicious circularity as demonstrated in the inference pattern "A because B, B because A". So, they claim, even though all arguments may be considered to be circular in one sense, not all are circular in the same sense, and not every sense involves logically fallacious reasoning. [Frame (1995): pp. 299-309.] [Frame (1994): pp. 229-30.]

Clarkians, on the other hand, believe that "all" philosophical systems start with axioms, which by definition are not capable of proof. Clarkians choose the propositions of Scripture as their axioms. Circular reasoning (of the fallacious sort) involves trying to prove premises from their conclusions, while axioms are not to be proved at all. Clarkians claim to deduce theorems from the axioms of Scripture.Fact|date=March 2007

Presuppositionalists posit that there is a logical necessity that attaches to a certain set of presuppositions (the ultimate of which being the existence of the God revealed in the Bible) and that one simply cannot reject that set of presuppositions without destroying the very foundations of knowledge, science, and ethics. That is to say, presuppositionalists argue that without the Christian-Theistic circle, human experience would be unintelligible, and the very objection to "circular reasoning" would be nothing more than a random, disconnected, and ultimately meaningless utterance, not in principle different from any other utterance. Like the man in Bahnsen's analogy who breathes out air to make the argument against the existence of air, by raising the "circular reasoning" objection the unbeliever is thereby demonstrating the truth of Christian Theism, according to presuppositionalists. [Bahnsen (1998): pp. 518-20.]

It should not be thought, however, that all presuppositionalists repudiate empirical or rational evidences in favor of heavily philosophical argumentation about the nature of conceptual schemes, the nature of arguments and the like. Van Tillians in particular utilize evidence from many other disciplines (physical sciences, archaeology, philosophy, etc.) — as understood according to the Christian presuppositions — to argue in even "broader circles," seeking to demonstrate that all the universe, when understood correctly, plainly declares the wonders of the Creator. [Bahnsen (1998): pp. 634-48.]



*cite_encyclopedia |author=John M. Frame |url=| title=Presuppositional Apologetics |encyclopedia=New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics |editor=W. C. Campbell-Jack, Gavin J. McGrath, and C. Stephen Evans |publisher=InterVarsity Press |date=2006 |isbn=ISBN 978-0830824519 |accessdate=2007-03-12

External links


* [] - writings by and about Van Til and his apologetic.
* [ The Trinity Foundation] - the shorter writings and audio of Gordon Clark and his disciples for free as well as printed books and audio for a fee.
* [ The Works of John Frame and Vern Poythress]
* [ "Reformed Perspectives"' Apologetics] - a number of papers and books by John Frame.
* [ The Hall of Frame] - papers by students of John Frame as well as material for Frame's courses at Reformed Theological Seminary.
* [ Christian Apologetics course] taught by John Frame at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, available for free from iTunes U
* [ The Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics] - many articles and books about the presuppositional approach to apologetics.
* [ Monergism's Apologetics Articles] - extensive collection of essays on presuppositional apologetics
* [ Frontline Ministries Apologetics Articles] - collection of essays on explaining and applying presuppositional apologetics.
* [ Covenant Media Foundation] which offers a variety of audio resources related to presuppositional apologetics by Greg Bahnsen, Douglas Wilson, and some by Van Til himself.
** [ "Presuppositional Procedure"] , by Greg Bahnsen.
** [ "The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics"] by Greg Bahnsen.
* [ First Word] - articles about Van Til's apologetic.
* [ Reformation Ministries International] e-books espousing a Clarkian presuppositionalism

Debates utilizing a presuppositional approach

* [ The Great Debate: Does God Exist?] - transcript of a formal debate between Christian Greg Bahnsen and atheist Gordon Stein.
* [ The Martin-Frame Debate] A written debate between skeptic Michael Martin and Christian John Frame about the transcendental argument for the existence of God.
* [ The Drange-Wilson Debate] A written debate between skeptic Theodore Drange and Christian Douglas Wilson.
* [ "Is Non-Christian Thought Futile?"] A written debate between Christian Doug Jones and skeptics Keith Parsons and Michael Martin in "Antithesis" magazine (vol. 2, no. 4).
* [ "Biblical Rationalism versus Psycho Assertionism"] an informal email debate between Christian Vincent Cheung and atheist Derek Sansone

Debates and discussions on apologetic method

* [ "Presuppositional or Evidential Apologetics?"] An audio debate in MP3 format between Gordon Clark (who speaks first) and David Hoover. (Warning: 25 MB download; no streaming available.)
* [ "Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic"] An article by John Frame from the "Westminster Theological Journal" analyzing the book "Classical Apologetics" by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley (ISBN 0-310-44951-0), which itself includes "a friendly refutation of Cornelius Van Til's presuppositional apologetics."
* [ "A Critique of the Evidentialist Apologetical Method of John Warwick Montgomery"] , an article by Greg Bahnsen.
* [ "The Resurrection of Thomism"] An article by Doug Erlandson critiquing Thomistic apologetics.
* [ "Presuppositionalism vs. Evidentialism"] , a question-and-answer from Creation Ministries International that takes a semi-Clarkian approach to apologetics.
* [ "Agnostic asks whether biblical Christians commit circular reasoning: role of axioms, internal consistency and real world application"] , a semi-Clarkian question-and-answer from Creation Ministries International.

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