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Answers to Practical Presup Questions



Q: What is presuppositional apologetics?


A: Many people ask me this question, and it's not always easy to explain complex ideas in simple terms. It depends on how much someone knows about the topic. What's clear to one person might be confusing to another. So, tailoring my answer to fit the situation is important.


But if I had to simplify, presuppositional apologetics is a particular method of defending the Christian faith. It places great emphasis upon one’s fundamental beliefs we  call presuppositions. These beliefs shape how we see facts. For example, what we think about the world, how we know things, and how we should live all affect how we understand the facts we encounter. That’s just to say that the facts we encounter will be impacted by our worldview assumptions. 


Another crucial aspect of presuppositional apologetics is its intentional self awareness of the fact that one’s apologetic ought to flow out of our theology, as grounded in scripture. Now, there are some debates out there concerning this, but I am of the strong conviction that a presuppositional apologetic approach best fits within the framework of Reformed Theology. It was within a Reformed, Calvinistic context that philosopher, theologian, and apologist Cornelius Van Til sought to develop this apologetic. If our apologetic presupposes our theology, and our theology is coming from a Reformed perspective, then our apologetic will seriously take into consideration a Reformed conception of God, man, sin, covenant and so on and so forth. 


Q. How can we simplify this method in how we explain it and teach it to others? 


A: I believe we can make explaining presuppositional apologetics simpler by avoiding the term itself. For those unfamiliar with theology, apologetics, or philosophy, the name can be intimidating. While we can't completely avoid using the term, we can find simpler ways to describe this method. Because I'm convinced it aligns with the Bible, I'm comfortable calling presuppositional apologetics the “biblical approach to defending the faith”. By framing it this way, we can explain what we mean by defending the faith biblically and outline the principles from the Bible that form the basis of this particular approach to apologetics.


I'm not claiming that the Bible is a handbook for apologetics, laid out systematically. What I mean is, there are principles in the Bible that form the foundation for the method I'm talking about. We can use several scriptures as starting points to explain these ideas to people, whether they're familiar with apologetics or not. For instance, I typically like using Hebrews 6:13 to illustrate the point (which is fundamental to a presuppositional approach) that God is the highest authority. The scripture says, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” Or, when I am trying to explain the idea that there is no neutrality, I typically like to use Matthew 12:30 which reads, “Whoever is not with me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Or, I will contrast the ideas of building our intellectual house either on Christ, or on some other weaker foundation by appealing to Matthew 7:24-27. I could go further but I think you get the point. The Bible provides the principles upon which the presuppositional apologetic methodology is built. 


This doesn't mean that those who don't use presuppositional apologetics can't also refer to those scriptures. However, I believe it would be interesting to try and identify who consistently applies the principles outlined in those texts. This is where many of the differences and points of contention between various apologetic schools may arise.


Q. How can we teach presuppositional apologetics to children? 


A. Because I believe this approach takes seriously the authority of God and his Word, I see great value in teaching presuppositional apologetics to our children by training them to appeal to this authority when they have their own questions.  It may sound simplistic but I think it's helpful to ask our kids when they have a question, "What does God say in his word?" This way of engaging with our children teaches them to consider what God says about various topics. It helps them understand that God's word is the ultimate authority, and it teaches them to turn to God first and foremost for guidance when grappling with questions. While the Bible doesn't cover every single topic or question, it does provide teachings and principles that can help us apply God's authoritative word to different aspects of life not explicitly addressed in the Bible.


It is critical to understand though, that parents need to actively discuss these matters with their children. Kids need to learn the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, like who God is, what the Bible is, who Jesus is, and what the gospel is. In other words, we need to teach our kids good old fashioned basic Christian theology. Working through a catechism, or teaching in a question and answer format: Q. Who is God? A. God is…. can prove very helpful. And of course, scripture reading must be the norm in order to teach our kids how to provide biblically based answers to the questions their friends ask. This should be obvious, but it is going to be difficult for our kids to defend the Bible if they do not know what the Bible teaches. 


Now, let's look at the defensive side of this approach. Teaching our kids to turn to the Bible can be really useful when their friends at school ask them questions. If a friend raises a question or objection, it's okay to respond by saying, "Well, God says in the Bible..." Even if their friend doesn't believe the Bible, quoting scripture accurately can often clarify misunderstandings that they might have. It can be a helpful tool in defending our beliefs and correcting erroneous ideas and misquotations often put forth by unbelievers who may have a passing acquaintance with the Bible. 


When we teach our kids about the truths in the Bible and how it helps us understand the world, we can show them how to respond when someone questions the Bible's authority. We can encourage them to ask the person, "How do you understand the world without the Bible?" This might seem basic, but it's actually a simple way to introduce the transcendental argument. We are in essence teaching our kids to challenge their unbelieving schoolmates to offer a coherent picture of the world (as simple as it might be if they are very young) without reference to God. Questions like: 1. Where did life come from? 2. How do you explain how human beings came about? 3. How do you explain right and wrong? 


Teaching our kids the Bible will also equip our kids to answer difficult emotional questions like: 1. Why did my mom have to die of cancer? 2. Why do bad things happen to good people? 3. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Again, there is not enough space to engage each of these questions in detail but hopefully you can see the point that I'm trying to make, namely, the Bible either provides explicit answers to these questions or it provides us with principles that can be applied to answering those sorts of questions. 


Q. I have heard that presuppositional apologetics works well when engaging atheists, but what about other religions? How would we approach non-Christian perspectives that believe in a God?


A.  I hear this question often but unfortunately it is based upon a misunderstanding of the presuppositional form of argumentation. Yes, the presuppositional approach is effective when dealing with atheistic materialism, but it can work just as well with other perspectives too. While our discussions might vary depending on who we're talking to, the basic method stays the same. We presuppose the truth of God and his word, and we argue that if God and his word is not presupposed, the contrary position will be reduced to absurdity. This is just a simplification of the transcendental argument for the existence of God. We are basically saying that God and his word form the only basis for rationality and knowledge, and if God and his word are rejected, rationality and knowledge are undermined. 


Now, just saying this isn't enough to prove it. We need to dig into the specifics and discuss the opposing worldview. On the positive side, we'll aim to demonstrate that the Christian worldview offers a solid foundation for understanding rationality, knowledge, logic, and so forth. On the flip side, we'll critique the competing religious perspective from within, showing that its assumptions undermine rationality and knowledge and so on. 


What does this mean in practice? Let's consider Buddhism as an example. A central belief in Buddhism is that suffering exists in the world. We see suffering all around us. According to Buddhism, the key to ending suffering is to eliminate desire because desire is seen as the cause of suffering. When people desire things and don't get them, they may resort to harmful actions like killing or going to war. So, to stop suffering, the solution is to get rid of desire. In summary, suffering exists, it stems from unfulfilled desires, and to end suffering, we must eliminate desire. 


Now, let's analyze this viewpoint. Let's imagine that the Buddhist perspective is correct. It acknowledges that suffering exists and attributes it to unfulfilled desire. So, the solution seems simple: to end suffering, we must eliminate desire. However, there's a problem with this position. To eliminate desire, one must first desire to do so. But this desire to eliminate desire is still a desire itself. Essentially, one needs the very thing they're trying to remove in order to achieve the goal of ending suffering.


If you understand how the presuppositional approach is used with atheists, you'll see that the same overall strategy was used with the Buddhist perspective. First, we present how the Christian worldview offers the basis for rationality, knowledge, logic, and so forth. Then, we ask the non-Christian position to do the same. As they present their views, we can then reveal the internal conflicts or contradictions within their perspective. So, even though the topics discussed may vary, the overall method stays consistent. This overall approach works regardless of the worldview that you are engaged with. 


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