By Eli Ayala
In this article I want to give a helicopter overview of the presuppositional apologetic approach. I receive all sorts of questions on how to explain the ins and outs of the method so I thought it would be a good idea to provide such an overview explanation.
Intro to Presup
Presuppositional apologetics is a way of defending the Christian worldview by assuming or “presupposing” certain fundamental truths without trying to prove them through a direct appeal to particular evidences. It uses what is called an indirect approach in which we argue and reason down from our position. For instance, a conversation may sound a bit like the following: “Let’s assume or “presuppose” that Christianity is true for the sake of argument and see how it makes sense of human experience, science, mathematics, philosophy, logic, knowledge, etc. Furthermore, let us now assume that the non-Christian position is true for the sake of argument and see what follows. The idea is that in granting the non-Christian position to be true hypothetically, such a position cannot sufficiently account or ground human experience, science, mathematics, philosophy, logic, knowledge, or any of what we might call the “preconditions of intelligibility” which refer to the fundamental factors that make communication and understanding possible. They are what must be true “first” in order for anything else to make sense or be intelligible.
Now, when I speak of assuming or “presupposing” certain fundamental principles I am really referring to assuming or “presupposing” the Christian worldview as we are arguing that it is the truth of such a worldview that provides the necessary and sufficient context for the meaningfulness and intelligibility of all facts. The presuppositional approach is called presuppositional because it argues by presupposing the truth of the Christian position and argues that if it were not true one could not have a ground or justification for argument itself. How this is specifically done will be expanded upon later.
A Worldview Apologetic
The Presuppositional method is a self-consciously worldview apologetic as it sees the task of defending the faith as defending an entire system of thought. This point is made explicit in the very way in which Cornelius Van Til, the father of the presuppositional approach, defined apologetics, he wrote, “Apologetics is the vindication of the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life” (Van Til, Christian Apologetics, p. 17). One’s “philosophy of life” is another way of referring to a person’s worldview perspective. Because everyone has a worldview, and our worldview constitutes the intellectual framework for how we understand the facts and how they relate to each other, it follows that when we are defending the facts, we are not simply defending isolated data points, but an entire system in which the individual facts have meaning and context. So, when the Christian and the non-Christian engage in their dispute, they are engaging not in a simple difference of opinion over what is true, rather they are engaging in a literal clash of worldview perspectives.
Analyzing Worldviews (Mormonism)
Because the nature of the disagreement between the Christian and the non-Christian is a disagreement between two systems of thought, the actual interaction between them will involve the necessity of analyzing those systems and checking for consistency. A worldview which contains inconsistencies at the fundamental level cannot be true so doing such analyses will be a vital part of the apologetic encounter. As a side however, we want to be careful not to make the erroneous assumption that consistency automatically proves a worldview true. For instance, demonstrating that a non-Christian worldview has logical problems does not automatically mean that the Christian position is therefore true. The Christian will still have more work to do.
So, how might we approach this issue of analyzing a worldview. Let’s take the Mormon for example. First, when interacting with a Mormon, you are going to want to know a little about what they believe, so you will either want to study Mormon beliefs or be ready to ask key questions throughout the course of your interactions with them. When you gather information about their beliefs this will tip you off to some of the important aspects of their worldview perspective. Next, you will want to identify some of the key presuppositions which underlie the Mormon position. This may include their beliefs about God, the authority of the Book of Mormon, or the role of modern prophets. Then, you will want to analyze their presuppositions and test for consistency. In other words, are there inconsistencies within their concept of God/gods? Since Mormons hold to the Bible, are there inconsistencies between the writings of Mormonism and the Bible? If so, what are they? How might we bring this up throughout the course of the interaction?
The believer can then offer the Christian position and highlight the fact that the genuine Christian position does not suffer the weaknesses that we hope were brought out in analyzing the Mormon perspective. This will require that the Christian be familiar with the biblically true position. That is to say that the Christian will have to have a thorough knowledge of their own worldview.
With some practice, it will become easier to ask the right questions that get at the heart of the inconsistencies inherent in the Mormon position. And in like fashion, with some practice, the Christian will become better at answering questions and criticisms which are launched at the Christian perspective.
The Transcendental Argument
At the heart of the presuppositional approach is the transcendental argument for God’s existence. The transcendental argument for God’s existence is an argument which seeks to demonstrate the necessary truth of the Christian worldview which is grounded in the triune God and his revelation. It posits that certain aspects of human experience such as logic, knowledge, morality, and the uniformity of nature necessarily require the truth of the Christian worldview. The gist of what this looks like is seen in taking an agreed upon item of human experience and asking what must be true in order for that item or fact to be meaningful and intelligible. So, we have the Christian worldview and the non-Christian worldview. We choose something that both parties agree on; let’s say “that knowledge is possible” or that the “laws of logic are universally binding” or that “objective morality exists” or any fact you want. Then we compare worldviews. Which worldview can make sense out of the particular fact that is agreed upon by both parties? We can then ask what must be true in order for the fact in question to be meaningful and intelligible? We then lay out how the Christian conception of reality provides the necessary context for the meaningfulness of said fact. We then invite the unbeliever to try and do the same. It is here then that as both sides are being laid out, critical analysis is being done via internally critiquing each perspective to see whether they pay the bills on the claim that their worldview is adequate to sufficiently and necessarily ground and make meaningful the fact in question. There is more to be said here but hopefully the general point is understood.
No Neutrality & the Lordship of Christ
A key feature of the presuppositional approach is the assertion that there is no neutrality with respect to any fact whatsoever. Presuppositionalists argue that neutrality is a myth because we believe that every person's worldview is built upon fundamental presuppositions or foundational beliefs that shape one’s understanding of reality. These fundamental presuppositions are unavoidable starting points that influence one’s interpretation of the facts and reasoning process. Furthermore, as Christians we cannot be neutral because our intellectual commitment is to Christ and his Word so we dare not pretend that facts can be properly interpreted independently of the one who created and defined the facts. One is either presuppositionally committed to Christ or not.
Presup and Reformed Theology
Those who adhere to the presuppositional approach as formulated by Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen and John Frame typically do so within the context of Reformed Theology. Van Til was quite intentional in his development of an apologetic method that grew out of the soil of a reformed theological framework. Important to the presuppositional method is the notion that the method must be consistent with and flow out of biblical teaching, and from the Reformed perspective, this meant that the method would reflect a specifically reformed orientation as it is obvious that adherents of Reformed Theology believe it to be itself biblical.
So, what are some of these Reformed underpinnings of the presuppositional approach? Well, a key feature of Reformed Theology is a particular understanding of Total Depravity. Reformed Theology emphasizes the fallen nature of humanity and its inability to fully grasp truth without divine involvement. Presuppositional apologetic methodology aligns with this by arguing that all human reasoning is tainted by sin, making reliance upon God's revelation necessary. In other words, because total depravity is true and all aspects of man are touched by sin, there will be a natural inclination to suppress the truth about God. This will involve many things one of which include a misinterpretation of the facts of God around him so as to avoid one’s obligation to their maker.
Another key feature of Reformed Theology is a particular conception of divine sovereignty. Reformed Theology emphasizes God's absolute sovereignty over all aspects of existence, including knowledge and reason. Presuppositional apologetics complements this by highlighting the need to acknowledge God's authority as the foundation for rationality and hence knowledge itself.
Reformed Theology places great emphasis upon a covenantal framework. It views God's relationship with humanity as established through covenants. Presuppositional apologetics fits within this framework by asserting that the Christian worldview is the only coherent basis for rationality, as it is rooted in God's covenantal promises. Rationality, thinking, and reasoning also rely on the uniformity of nature which is itself rooted in God’s covenantal promise that “seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease as long as the earth remains” (Genesis 8:22). The Reformed covenantal framework also provides the context for understanding mankind as either a covenant keeper or covenant breaker and such an understanding has definite implications for the presuppositional apologetic approach.
Reformed Theology also holds that scripture is self-attesting and does not require external validation. Presuppositional apologetics agrees, asserting that the Bible’s authority must be presupposed for meaningful reasoning. Now, this does not imply that Reformed Theology or presuppositionalism denies that the scriptures can be validated. It just affirms that the scriptures are not validated by some greater authority than itself. Rather, it is validated transcendentally, by appealing to its own necessity and the impossibility of the contrary.
Lastly, Reformed Theology emphasizes the unchanging nature of God's truth. Presuppositional apologetics complements this by asserting that the Christian worldview provides a stable foundation for knowledge, contrasted with the shifting and inconsistent assumptions of other worldviews.
Of course, more can be said and expanded upon, but I hope this article provides a general helicopter overview of the presuppositional method. Perhaps in future articles I will try to unpack some of these concepts in more depth, but for now I hope that the information provided proves useful.