Back To The Basics: Apolegetic Pt 3 – Presuppositional Apologetics



ApologeticsThe goal of presuppositional apologetics, like all other apologetic methods is to provide a rational basis for Christian faith.  It does so by defending Christianity against the counter claims of non-religious world views such as atheism or secular humanism and against the claims of other religions.  It also is used to attack (intellectually, we must always be winsome in an apologetic encounter) the claims of other world views and to show not only that Christian faith is reasonable, but that it is sure and that all other world views and religions are absolutely false (it is much more suited to this latter task than other apologetic methods).

Presuppositional apologetics takes its name from the recognition that all arguments (apologetic or otherwise) are rooted in presuppositions, or things that are already believed.  Presuppositional apologetics recognizes that God’s inspired Word is the only reliable and trustworthy standard of truth, and this is the presupposition that gives this school of thought its name.

For the presuppositional apologist all of his arguments will be firmly rooted in Scripturalno_neutral_ground truth, and he will not grant “neutral” ground to his partner in the apologetic encounter, because there really is no such thing for as neutral intellectual territory.  The presupppositionalist recognizes that to grant “neutral ground” and then argue for the existence of God is to argue based on his partner in the apologetic encounter’s false  presupposition, namely that human (specifically his/her own) reason is the arbiter of what is true and false.  Rather the presuppositional apologist roots his/her arguments in the only sure source of truth, the revealed Word of God.

Another key distinctive of presuppositional apologetics is that it argues for the certainty of the Christian world view, and for the impossibility of all other world views and religious systems.  Other apologetic methods seek to show that Christianity is reasonable and probable (they would say so probable that other views are unreasonable), but there is a serious flaw in this methodology.  Even if it is shown that Christianity is reasonable and highly probable that leaves room for other world views to be reasonable and true (however improbable) and for Christianity to be unreasonable and untrue.

The arguments that the presuppositional apologist makes are, in simple terms, one step arguments.  Presuppositional apologetics argues for the certainty of the existence of the God of the Bible, the Christian God.  In contrast classic apologetics seeks to show that the existence of a god is highly probable and that of all of the theistic views Christianity is the most likely.  Other schools of apologetics such as evidentialism and the cumulative case theory approach would claim that they too use a one step approach, but functionally their arguments, although not as strictly ordered as the classic approach, do divide into arguments primarily for the existence for a god and arguments for the Christian God.

Not only is presuppositionalism unique in its single step approach, but the nature of the arguments that it offers is also unique.  While virtually all other approaches to apologetics focus on evidential arguments of one form or another, presuppositional apologetics focuses on transcendental arguments.  A transcendental argument is not made up of a chain of evidence, but rather makes a holistic case that all meaning and thought presupposes, or relies on the God of the bible, by showing the that unbelievers are unable to think, argue, acquire knowledge or even live apart from the God of the Bible.  A transcendental argument may take several different forms, it may be to show that only the God of the bible can account for the laws of logic, and make debate possible, that only the God of the bible can explain the innate sense of right and wrong every person has, or the natural appreciation of beauty that is native to all people, but at its base, a transcendental argument shows that only the Christian worldview provides a livable framework for human existence.  (This does not mean that there is no role for the use of evidence in presuppositional apologetics, this is a common misconception.) This in many ways is the key distinctive of the presuppositional approach. (Here is a great example of a transcendent argument in action.)

I believe that presuppositional apologetics is not only the most effective approach to the apologetic task, but also the most God honoring.  I believe this for a number of reasons.

arrow signsFirst, although the other approaches are not called presuppositional, they are all governed by presuppositional thinking.  By granting “neutral” ground to the unbeliever and then arguing for the existence of God or of the God of the bible, they have effectively allowed the presuppositions of the unbeliever to lay the foundation of the apologetic encounter.  And the presupposition that they will stipulate (often without realizing it) is invariably man centered and usually boils down to some form of the enlightenment belief that that their own reasoning is the sole arbiter of truth.  This is what is called the magisterial use of reasoning and is an affront to God.  One of the things we can know with certainty is that the unbeliever is a fool, since the fool in his heart says there is no God (Psalm 14:1/53:1), so why should we allow an unbeliever to set the terms of the apologetic encounter.

And what is worse, to approach the unbeliever as if he has no knowledge of God and needs convinced, is to deny the clear teaching of scripture on the matter.  Roman’s 1 clearly teaches that unbelievers have a knowledge of God (although not enough knowledge to save), and that they willfully suppress this truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-19).  Creation communicates to them (some of) the attributes and existence of God.  To approach apologetics as if the unbeliever has no knowledge of God is to functionally deny the inerrancy and authority of scripture.

A second key consideration is that presuppositionalism is the only approach to open bibleapologetics that rests squarely on sure truth.  Only the revealed word of God is 100% trustworthy and sure.  The noetic effects of the Fall (the total corruption of our thought process) render both our reasoning ability and our ability to interpret evidence untrustworthy.  And because presuppositional apologetics rests solely on the Word of God as its foundation, it can do what other apologetic methods cannot, show that the Christian world view is correct and all other world views are false with certainty.  Certainty is a precise term which in this case doesn’t just mean overwhelmingly likely, but that the contrary is impossible, and it is simply not good enough to show that Christianity is very likely, and pretty reasonable, it must be shown to be the only way to explain creation and human experience.

Another key strength of presuppositional apologetics is that it doesn’t just prove the Christian world view, but it proves contrary world views false.  Other apologetic approaches show the reasonableness of Christianity, but rarely show the folly of other world views.  By employing transcendental arguments, presuppositional apologetics is able to show that all other world views are unable to account for creation and the human condition and thus fail the “test of livability”.  This is particularly important because the apologist’s ultimate goal is not merely to win debates, but to win souls.  The ultimate goal in any apologetic encounter is to bring the unbeliever to saving faith (although it very rarely happens, and when it does it is the sovereign work of God, not of the apologist) and approaches that do not show the un-livability of non-Christian world views are ill suited for that task.

Not only do I believe that presuppositional apologetics is the best apologetic approach, I believe that the two most commonly leveled criticisms of it are baseless and without merit.

no circular reasoningThe first of these is that presuppositional arguments are invalid because they are circular.  People who make this criticism tend to characterize the arguments of presuppositional apologetics as “since God thus God”, but this is so simplistic that it borders on being slanderous.  Perhaps the biggest problem with this claim is that all apologetic approaches are dependent on the apologists’ controlling presuppositions.  Just as the presuppositionalist presupposes that the Bible is the arbiter of truth, the evidentialist bases his arguments on the belief that evidence (empiricism) determines truth and the apologist who appeals to reason presupposes that human reason is the standard of truth.  The only difference is that the presuppositionalist recognizes and discloses his controlling beliefs.  So if the arguments of presuppositional apologetics are circular, the arguments of all approaches are also circular.  Moreover, the reasoning of a presuppositional apologist is not circular, it is linear in a way that the other approaches are not.  For the presuppositionalist God’s reasoning (found in scripture) is the basis for faith, which is the basis for human reasoning, and out of this reasoning flows presuppositional arguments for the Christian world view.  Most importantly, surrendering Christian presuppositions (based solely on the Bible), to argue for the truth of Christianity is to surrender the very thing that is being argued for, the Lordship of Christ (and the authority of Scripture).

The second common criticism of presuppositional apologetics is that because it assumes the Bible and a Christian world view and does not start from a “neutral” position, there is not any common ground on which to engage the unbeliever.  This is simply not the case.  There are two key points of commonality between unbelievers and believers.  The first is their exposure to creation, as Psalm 19 states that “the heavens declare the Glory of God and the expanse displays the work of His hands” while Romans 1 makes clear that because what can be known about God is displayed through nature and that unbeliever suppress this knowledge in unrighteousness.  Everyone, even the most hard-bitten atheist knows the God of the Bible exists, even if they suppress that knowledge, and this allows for interaction on that common ground.  As does the fact that both believer and unbeliever alike are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).  The image of God is the basis for human uniqueness and worth and provides ample common ground from which to launch an apologetic encounter.

While there are apologists of other methods who I respect and whom I love as brothers in Christ, and I want to stress that a preferred apologetic approach is certainly not an issue to divide over, non-presuppositional approaches are not merely second best, they are wrong headed.  Only an apologetic grounded in the sure truth of the scripture is up to the task of proving with certainty that only the God of the bible can account for creation and human existence.

Next up an evaluation of the “classical” apologetic method


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About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.