So, by now you’ve figured out Presuppositionalism is the one I have a problem with. I suppose part of it is that my first encounter with it was the video series How to Answer the Fool, which it seemed the producer was trying to present in the most confusing manner possible. He had the film cutting back from scene to scene in a most disjointed manner. I think I got the gist of it well enough, though, and I didn’t like what I understood. The basic premise, I believe, is that subjecting God to the kind of objective human analysis involved in Classical apologetics and Evidentialism is an affront to His dignity and sovereignty and that your senses are too unreliable to base any conclusions off of them anyway. The answer, they say, is to start with the assumption that God exists, and then everything makes sense and you have a 100% sure basis for your knowledge.

Now, I respect that the Presuppositionalists want to uphold the glory of God. I also agree that, once you start off with the premise that God is good and man is evil, everything starts to make more sense. What they do, though, is, I think, different from the way Scripture does it. First of all, I don’t think it’s demeaning to God to try to reason with others based on evidence and logic. What then is the point of all the signs throughout the Bible? Dr. Sproul would have stood me down that the miracles in the Bible are to validate the prophet’s authority rather than prove God’s existence, which is already assumed in the Bible, and that’s true for many, if not most of them, but there are some signs that are clearly for God proving Himself. Just looking at Isaiah, God welcomes Ahaz to request any sign he wants to prove His promised deliverance. He gives Hezekiah at least two signs of that deliverance, which is clearly not to validate Isaiah since Hezekiah knows he’s a prophet already. Most importantly, He challenges the idolaters in Chapter 41 to pick their God/gods based off of whose prophecy comes true in a manner very pleasing to an Evidentialist. And let’s not forget that the whole point of the sign in Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal is to show Israel that the Lord is their God and Baal isn’t. Granted God gets very angry at those who demand more proof than He has given them, but He doesn’t seem to mind giving us reasons to believe.

In what I think is Presuppositionalism’s biggest flaw, though, take Romans 1. Paul says that we know God exists by seeing Creation and reasoning back to a Creator. That’s what Classical apologetics and Evidentialism do, but not only do Presuppositionalists refuse to do that, some of them say the others are ethically wrong to. Paul also refers to God writing His law on humanity’s heart in Romans, so the Moral argument is also Biblical.

As far as sensory perception goes, I agree it’s not 100% reliable. I will also point out, however, that the Apostle John makes his apologetic defense in the first verses of I John based off of his senses: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the word of life.” That’s three of the five senses right there! John is giving his senses as one of the reasons he believes. In other words, they’re usually reliable enough to form reasonable opinions based on.

Not only that, but this approach is a logically flawed theory that rests on circular reasoning. Circular reasoning, from a logician’s point-of-view, is where you start with your conclusion as one of the premises. Basically, Presuppositionalism says, “God exists. This further premise. That further premise. Therefore, God exists.” You haven’t proved anything because you assumed what you were setting out to prove from the get-go!

I don’t know how effective Presuppositionalism is in practice (if it converts souls, never mind my objections!), but it’s not nearly as logically sound as Classical Apologetics, Evidentialism, or the Moral Standard. I take strong exception to the claim that those three are sinful methods because I can find them in the most apologetic chapter in the Bible (Romans 1). Presuppositionalists are of course right when they point out that the Bible assumes the existence of God on page 1 of Genesis and works from there, but consider the context. Moses was writing to a nation whose fathers had worshipped God for centuries and who had just seen miracle after miracle performed by them. He didn’t have any reason to go into proving the existence of God! When Paul is writing to Gentiles who are the first in their family line to believe in God, however, he takes a few words to explain how they know who He is, and it’s not with Presuppositionalism.

It’s worth pointing out that the man behind the series How to Answer the Fool admitted he himself was converted by Evidentialism. The Moral Standard was the method preferred by one of the great apologeticists of all time, C.S. Lewis. And Classical Apologetics is called that because it used to be the standard apologetics used by the Church’s influential thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. I hope you found an approach you can use in these posts and urge you to follow through with it with the sources I’ve mentioned so that you can “give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”

6 thoughts on “My Choice of Apologetics, Part IV: What Do You Suppose about That?

  1. I understand the reservations you discuss here, though it seems to me that many of them are shaped by the particular film through which you encountered presuppositional apologetics. The more thorough attempts to articulate this apologetic—by e.g. Bahnsen, Van Til, and their more modern acolytes—might help alleviate some your reservations. For instance, I find that Van Til’s “Why I Believe in God” (available here: http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/index.html?mainframe=/apologetics/why_I_believe_cvt.html) helpfully illuminates what this apologetic might look like and perhaps clarifies somewhat better than the watered down film version.

    The presuppositionalist would look at Romans 1 as you do and argue that you have left out two critical points that Paul makes. You’re quite right that all mankind is able, through their senses and the application of their God-given reason, to know that God is the creator from the evidence given to us in creation. All mankind knows this, and that is why we are without excuse; yet, Paul says, the unbeliever suppresses that truth and does not worship God. I think his argument only makes sense if he means that all unregenerate unbelievers do this. One possible implication, then, is that simply drawing an unbeliever’s attention to that evidence will prove ineffectual precisely because they are in an epistemological state of denial: suppressing the evidence offered by creation and hardening their hearts against God. I don’t think the presuppositionalist would deny that the evidence is compelling and convincing; they would argue, however, that it lacks the power to change the heart of an unbeliever. The unbeliever will interpret that evidence according to their own God-denying presuppositions.

    The central tenet, as I understand it, of presuppositionalism, then, is that we cannot gloss over the stark divide between a believer and an unbeliever in regards to the way we respectively interpret the relevant evidence. That evidence may be used by the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, but we shouldn’t act as if the evidence can do that on its own. Further, Christian faith demands something beyond an affirmation that the evidence indicates a high probability that the Christian God is real or is the creator, and our apologetic should reflect that.

    On one other point—that of the circularity of the presuppositional apologetic—I think you might misrepresent the position. Smarter apologists and theologians have quibbled over this, and I don’t pretend to be a logician or a philosopher. That said, it seems like something of a straw man to characterize the presuppositional apologetic as an argument in the form “God exists. This further premise. That further premise. Therefore, God exists”. Taken as a holistic project, the apologetic includes various arguments, but their forms are quite different than that. The transcendental argument is probably the most common and powerful, and the form of that argument goes something like this: “Human beings are rational and the world is, to us, intelligible. The brute world does not ground human rationality or its own intelligibility. Only if we presuppose God as creator of image-bearing man and of an orderly world does our rationality make sense. Therefore, God must be the creator of man and the world.” Another simpler way to say this is, “Only the Christian God as he reveals Himself in scripture is the sufficient ground of rationality and intelligibility, the selfsame rationality that unbelievers use to deny God.” Even my sloppy forms of the argument, for Van Til anyway, would be enmeshed in a whole discussion about the ontological Trinity, human epistemology, the effects of the Fall on our minds, etc. That does not seem to me to be a circular argument very much at all, and it’s certainly not viciously circular in a way that would warrant it being rejected as fallacious.

    In a broader sense, I think we ought to expect some kind of circularity at the level of our worldviews. Those are by nature holistic and self-justifying. Our arguments are only valid ones if the Christian claims are true, and so if we do not in some sense presume that the Christian claims are true or if we outright deny that premise, our arguments will fail. In that sense, the Christian worldview and the presupposional apologetic are circular but not in a vicious way. (I thing the alternative apologetics you have discussed are circular in this sense; e.g. probabilistic evidence for God from creation is only good evidence if God is the creator, otherwise it is misleading evidence or we’re arguing deceitfully. Since we act as if it were good evidence, we are presupposing that we’re correct, and so our arguments have as their foundation the claim we’re trying to prove.)

    It’s been some time since I’ve thought much about apologetics, so my analysis may be a bit rusty. I do think Van Til, Bahnsen, or John Frame could perhaps help give a more palatable account of the apologetic. Frame in particular is less resistant to classical apologetics than either of the others and does more to synthesize these approaches.

    Chris Bonner

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    1. Hi Chris. Thank you for taking the time to give us such a detailed analysis of your position. There is one thing I’d like to ask about it. As I noted in my post, I see Classical Apologetics, Evidentialism, and the Moral Standard arguments in the Bible (especially in Romans, but elsewhere as well). Do you have any verses where you think the writer is employing presuppositionalism? I think I’ve heard presuppositionalists say the Bible starts with presuppositionalism by assuming God’s existence in the first verse, but the “in the beginning” is also precisely what the Classical apologeticists are getting at when they say a universe that’s not self-existent and eternal couldn’t create itself.

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      1. I would probably push back on some of the examples you cited of biblical cases for Classical Apologetics, Evidentialism, and the Moral Standard. At the very least, those instances don’t seem as clear to me as I think they do to you. For instance, Isaiah 41 seems to me a primarily rhetorical rejection of idols for their failure, their nothingness, and not an apologetic argument which the hearer should adjudicate. To choose empty idols over against God is an abomination, it is foolishness. That does square nicely with the presuppositionalist claim about the worldview divide that separates believer from unbeliever.

        I do think we ought to be careful in noting the distinct position we’re in over against the apostles or Jesus Christ himself. For instance, the miracles do give validation to and evidence for him, but they do so for an audience who worshiped the true God. That’s not a position we’re regularly in, and much of this apologetic methodology discussion isn’t particularly relevant to those examples. Acts 17 seems to me to be the clearest example of an apologetic to unbelieving gentiles, and so it probably has the most relevance to any discussion of contemporary methodology. I believe Bahnsen and Oliphint have written on that passage and discussed how it reflects or fits with a presuppositional apologetic. I’d refer you to them (e.g. https://www.wtsbooks.com/common/pdf_links/9780875525969.pdf) because my own attempt to make that case would be relatively underinformed.

        More than any particular apologetic encounters, however, I think the weightiest evidence for this view comes from its consistency with biblical theology. If we take what the scriptures say about the foolishness of man’s wisdom, the rebellion of man’s heart and mind, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit to bring new life before the unbeliever can cease suppressing the truth of God in his unrighteousness, then I think we ought to be consistent with that theology when we reach out to unbelievers.

        That all said, I find a lot of value in Classical Apologetics in particular, and I’ve also found Lewis’s moral argument quite compelling (though it also has hints of presuppositionalism to it). I would merely argue that those have to be done explicitly in light of what the word says must happen for an unbelieving heart to open to the things of God.

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      2. Chris,

        I’ve had a chance to look over your comments in more detail, and I’d like to make the following points. If I gave the impression that I was saying that Evidentialism has the power to convert without the Holy Spirit’s regeneration, I can assure you that’s not what I meant. I do know that He has used scientific evidence, however, as the secondary means to convict unbelievers of the truth (they’re now the leading Evidentialist scientists).
        I also don’t think any of my apologetical favorites are circular. They start at Point A (The universe is finite/well-designed) and move to Point B (The universe could not have created itself/Design comes from intelligence), and end in Point C (They point to a self-sufficient/intentional Creator) without assuming any of the premises. A logician as sound as Dr. Sproul would never have linked himself with a circular argument.
        I think your summary of Presuppositionalism fits well enough with Evidentialism. An “intelligible” (that is, deliberately and rationally designed) universe is just what the Evidentialists are talking about. If you assume something, though, through sheer logic you can’t prove it because you’ve already assumed it’s true. That doesn’t mean it’s not true; it just means the conclusion doesn’t follow through necessary deduction from the premise.
        I’ll double down on the Isaiah 41 being Evidentialist. What is apologetics in essence if not trying to tear a human away from the idols he’s put up in place of the true God? It’s just that the idol Classical Apologetics and Evidentialism are trying to tear down is Chance, and the Moral Standard is trying to tear down Relativism. I Kings 17 specifically states that the purpose of that miracle is so that, “The God that answereth by fire, let Him be God.” In much the same way, Evidentialism points to the miracle of an intricate, extraordinarily complex universe that supports life and looks to a Being powerful and wise enough to achieve it.
        I’m not sure Paul’s argument before the Areopagus really fits with any of our apologetics methods we’ve discussed, but I can see it kind of being Evidential. Evidentialism works from the premise that a God desiring a relationship with humans created a universe for them. As I’m sure you’re aware, C.S. Lewis was converted with reasoning like this when he saw how Christ fulfilled the dreams of humanity in its mythology by doing those things for real. The Church Fathers used this defense when pagans accused them of ripping off Eastern mystery religions like Mithraism; they said God was preparing humankind for His truth when He revealed it (that is, they can’t say such and such aspect of Christianity is ridiculous because they already believe a similar thing in their religion). That sounds like evidence of God writing Himself on human hearts to me. That said, I think Paul might be in a different class of apologetics here, one that worked for that time but not one when we don’t have people believing in pagan mythologies so much anymore.

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      3. I’ve gotten a bit far afield from the intent of my original comment which was not to make a case for Presuppositionalism as the One True Apologetic Methodology; rather, I hoped to give a more nuanced description of the method that would perhaps not fall prey to all of your initial objections (many of which I thought were mostly directed at the caricature of Presuppositionalism that the film gave). I’m not sure that I think it is correct to the exclusion of all other methods, but I do think that at its best it can be quite powerful (see Bahnsen, for instance, utilizing the Transcendental Argument in his debate with Gordon Stein), and I think it tries to witness to unbelievers in a way that lives out Reformed theology in a robust manner.

        A little housekeeping in response to your last comment: I know you would not argue that any of these apologetic methodologies could convince someone without the work of the Holy Spirit. My point was meant to be that I think presuppositionalism is more faithful to that gospel reality and more faithful to the anti-God antagonism of unbelievers than other methodologies. It acts explicitly in light of what the Bible says about unregenerate man. Even the best of Evidentialism (and I have a great deal of respect for Sproul and others) starts from a premise like the finitude of the universe or the fine-tuned character of the universe as if believers and unbelievers can interpret a brute fact in the same way. I’m skeptical of that notion. The epistemology of unbelief seems to me to give that the lie, and I would lean heavily on Romans 1 to affirm that. Bahnsen in particular has done a lot of work analyzing this issue and I find his arguments very compelling.

        You also gave an example of a non-circular argument as evidence of Evidentialism not begging the question, and I certainly agree that the argument you gave is not circular. I will stick to my broader claim that at the worldview level (but not the level of individual arguments) all systems are circular in a non-reductive and non-fallacious way. Even presuppositionalism, which is more comfortable with such circularity, can present arguments that are not circular in form. I gave the example of the Transcendental Argument in an earlier reply to just that point. Even the Evidentialist attempt to move from fine-tuning, let’s say, to an orderly creator, only makes sense the argument is right at we exist in an orderly universe as rational creatures made in God’s image. We shouldn’t gloss over or mask the necessity of that presupposition or ignore the unbeliever’s attempt to suppress that presupposition. (Though I think he always fails: he always acts as if he is a rational creature in an orderly universe.)

        Lastly, I tend to agree with you about the unique nature of Paul’s apologetic project on Mars Hill. That said, fundamental human nature hasn’t changed, and whatever the modern forms of the arguments, the root issue remains rebellion against God. The answer to such rebellion is not primarily an argument that proves a powerful godlike being most probably exists; instead, the answer is the unequivocal affirmation that Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead, and that all men are called to repent and submit to him as Lord. I imagine you would agree, of course, but my inclination toward presuppositionalism comes from it’s openness about just that fact in every encounter with an unbeliever; I think an apologist ought to have the willingness to say that I, as a Christian, am not neutral and I don’t accept the unbeliever’s premises about the facts of the universe or his interpretation of those facts. It’s not that the Holy Spirit cannot use Lewis’s moral argument or any of the thoughtful Evidentialist arguments to convict people; He does. But we, as Christians, ought to be faithful in the way we go about presenting the truth and recognize the chasm that separates the believing worldview from the unbelieving worldview.

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      4. Well, I don’t have quite the same problem with Presuppositionalism that I did before I heard your version. I do think now, however, that it’s misnamed since you used a syllogism to reason back to God’s existence and necessity without really presupposing. Presupposing, to me, means assuming, and you can’t prove what you assume at the get-go.

        That said, I still think Evidentialism is the more relevant school of apologetics in today’s materialistic society. It matches, as Clausewitz would advise, strength with strength at the Schwerpunkt of atheism. All their lives they’ve been told that science has replaced God, but the Evidentialists show how all that science points back to God. I’ve read or heard of many very intelligent, well-educated people who’ve been converted by Evidentialism, some of whom had been passionate atheists. Lew Wallace started Ben-Hur as an attempt to disprove Jesus’s being divine, but as we all know, the subtitle of the book is “A Tale of the Christ,” thanks to the evidence he uncovered in his research. Lee Strobel disdained Christianity before he interviewed Evidentialists. I think having epistemological arguments about rationality with people who don’t have the philosophy background of a Dr. Sproul or C.S. Lewis would present practical difficulties in getting the point across. That said, if you’ve found a way to make it work, then keep it up!

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