Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.
The Presuppositional Apologetic: Theory
Van Til was very adamant that believers cannot and should not give up any ground to those who are non-Christian. He argued that “Christian theism is a unit. Christianity and theism are implied in one another… Christianity can never be separated from some theory about the existence and the nature of God” (Christian Apologetics, 17). Again, he is adamant: “We must defend Christian-theism as a unit” (The Defense of the Faith, 28).
Along with his emphasis on defending Christianity as a unit, Van Til equally impressed the point of the extreme divergence of views between the Christian and the non-Christian. Apologetics must acknowledge the nature of man. Van Til placed particular emphasis upon the notion that apologists cannot ignore that “we shall have to choose between two theories of knowledge. According to one theory God is the final court of appeal; according to the other theory man is the final court of appeal” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Because of this, “it becomes quite impossible…. [to] agree with the non-Christian in his principles of methodology to see whether or not Christian theism be true” (The Defense of the Faith, 118-119).
The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).
However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.
The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).
What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):
Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].
…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)
It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.
His argument is therefore a type of “transcendental argument.” He argues that only within the Christian worldview can even the rationalism of the unbeliever make sense. Non-Christians may reject belief in God, but this is not a rational rejection, according to Van Til. Rather, “Sin will reveal itself in the field of knowledge in the fact that man makes himself the ultimate court of appeal… Man has declared his autonomy as over against God” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Mankind is actively suppressing the knowledge of God. “It is not that we are merely brought into existence by God, but our meaning also depends upon God” (The Defense of the Faith, 63).
To sum up Van Til’s apologetic, then, there are three major points:
1) There is no neutral starting point between the Christian and non-Christian. One must presuppose either.
2) Christians should therefore presuppose Christianity in their apologetic and seek to show how only upon Christian presuppositions can one make sense of reality.
3) The transcendental argument: Only if God exists can their be a basis for morality, science, history, and rationality.
Analysis and Application
I admit that I am quite sympathetic to those who argue this type of apologetic is viciously circular. For example, one proponent of Van Tilian apologetics is John Frame. In his defense of presuppositional apologetics, he writes, “Premise 1: Whatever the Bible says is true. Premise 2: The Bible says it is the Word of God. Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God” (Frame, 356, cited below). I can’t help but think that while this argument is deductively valid, using P1 is to beg the question against the non-Christian. But of course, that’s exactly what Van Til urges. One must start with Christian theism and the Bible as presuppositions and reason from there. Therefore, I’m inclined to think that presuppositionalism cannot stand on its own. However, I do think that Van Til’s method can be saved from logical absurdity and made applicable in a part of a “cumulative case” type of reasoning (or certainly, it could be paired with a type of Reformed Epistemology).
The way I would propose for this is to utilize Van Til’s apologetic by showing Christians and non-Christians how philosophical presuppositions can color one’s evaluation of evidence and even of reasoning itself. Instead of offering only evidences or only witness in a vacuum, the Christian apologist should indeed focus upon how one’s presuppositions change one’s evaluation of evidence or witnessing. One presuppositional approach to the problem of evil can be found, I’ve suggested, in Job.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the transcendental argument is extremely potent. By arguing that even the process of reasoning cannot make sense apart from God, Christians can effectively place the burden of proof upon their opponents to show how their system can cohere with reality.
Finally, I can’t help but appreciate the tenacity with which presuppostional apologists, in the spirit of Van Til, pursue incoherent positions and actively turn people back to the presuppositional approach. The presuppositional apologetic, while not necessarily one I think can stand on its own, is extremely powerful.
Reading Van Til leaves me at points breathless with his innovation and boldness; but at other points it leaves me frustrated. He is not easy to understand, nor are his arguments always convincing. Too often, he axiomatically states a position and assumes his argument has carried his point. However, one can hardly dismiss the whole of Van Til’s thought as useless to Christian apologetics. Van Til’s transcendental argument has staying power, and his urges to focus upon presuppositions cannot be ignored.
This is but the first in a series of posts I have planned on presuppositional apologetics. I will be analyzing Van Til’s thought further, as well as diving into some other well-known proponents of presuppositionalism like John Frame, K. Scott Oliphant, and Greg Bahnsen. A few posts will focus on applied presuppositional apologetics.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith 4th Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008).
—-, Christian Apologetics 2nd Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003).
John Frame, “A Presuppositional Apologist’s Closing Remarks” in 5 Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).
Links [Will update as series continues]
Proof that God Exists– an insightful view of presuppositional apologetics in practice.
Choosing Hats– A mammoth collection of articles from a presuppositional apologetic.
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J.W. Wartick. You could be helped by reading Greg Bahnsen’s “Van Til’s Apologetic.” It’s about 800 pages long and could have been 30 pages long and I was tempted when reading it outside to throw it into oncoming traffic it was so bad. Bahnsen handles the Thomistic arguments even worse than Dawkins does.
My problem is that presuppositionalism is a train wreck in epistemology. It can show itself to be coherent and consistent, but that does not show it to be true. It’s more of a coherence theory of truth than a correspondence one.
What do you mean when you say that “presuppositionalism is a train wreck in epistemology”?
As a presuppositionalist, my aim is to show non-theists that they don’t, and can’t, live consistently with their worldviews.
@Thomas. You can say that all you want, but I don’t think it can be established. Presuppositional apologetics while not wanting to rely on secular man actually starts with a Cartesian basis. Descartes wanted to doubt everything until he could know everything. The presuppositional approach takes doubt and says the only way you can eliminate doubt is by the impossibility of the contrary. Sorry, but if you want to say that, you need to disprove every single possible contrary out there. All you show is that your system is consistent. Your system can explain knowledge. Well and good. So what? That does not make your system true.
Presuppositionalism has no epistemological basis and ends up in circular reasoning.
I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that. Could you elaborate?
What would you say the epistemological basis for evidentialism is?
Presuppositionalism assumes that (a) God exists, (b) people suppress the truth about God (Romans 1.18), and (c) it’s possible to demonstrate, by unpacking a non-theist’s worldview, that they act as if (a) were true—thus showing (b) to be true. For example, in conversing with an atheist, I might say, “You think that some things really are evil, but your worldview isn’t able to support any objective, authoritative moral system. Aren’t you acting inconsistently with what you say you believe?”
@Mike. My question at this point is to ask what the word pistis itself means. Did it suddenly take on a totally different usage when used in the Bible?
I responded to your pistis question below my original comment that you refer too. But, while I am here…
I see your characterization of the presuppositional approach, and it does not describe me at all. I personally do not use the presuppositional approach to prove anything except the consistency of my belief system, which presupposes the very thing I want someone to believe. So, by definition, I realize my goal will not prove God. But, I am fine with that, because I also believe that God is the only one who can prove Himself. I have not yet found a way to prove Him to non-believer without the Holy Spirit’s intercession. Now, there are many approaches to help lead a person to that moment when the Holy Spirit can prod their heart and have them accept Him as their God. Some people are successful with raw logic, and God works through it, but if God does not introduce Himself, logic will never work by itself. Some people are fine with that. I have a difficulty with it. By starting with logic and not God, I paint myself into a corner, from which God will either rescue me by bringing the other person to a saving faith, or He will not. For me, I hate that corner and I now refuse to walk into it when I witness. I am a Christian with faith, and I start with that. My perspectives reflect that, and informs my interpretation of the world. If the person I am talking to can allow their heart to be softened, and let the Holy Spirit in, then great. If not, we’ve had a good conversation with no losers in the battle of logic. I have not been painted into a corner. Perhaps you can see my sinful vanity in my choice of approach, and I see it for what it is. I can only lift that up to God, and move on. Whether it’s despite my nature of because of it, I focus on Him in the manner I am best suited… and that turns out to be the presuppositional approach.
You may have a different perspective on how to use logic to lead people to a belief in God, one that does not presuppose His existence, one that does not frustrate you when they are not convinced, one that lets them take you seriously the next time you engage. I hope that God is blessing you in that, because I want to see as many people won for His kingdom as possible. But I do not believe that logic alone can bring a person to Christ. To whatever degree you have been successful, the Holy Spirit was there, too. In the end, their mind is not what made the final leap.You take the approach God blesses you in. I see it as a team effort anyway.
I will be very interested to see where you end up. I explored a similar path many years ago, and realized that every argument I had with a skeptic seemed to end with their comment that I am only concluding what I do because I have faith. For example, a person who sees order in nature is not obliged to conclude that nature was created. For them to conclude that we live an organized self-existant universe is no less rational then my conclusion that we live a designed universe, created by a self-existant God. Our choice of conclusion reflects where we start. It is unavoidable.
My conclusion at the time was that no conversation should end with the conclusion that I believe in God. It makes me look shallow and self-gratifying. Instead, I decided that my discussions should start with the fact that I believe in God (P1). I can then show the consistency of the universe and my (friendly) adversary’s observations (P2). Will he buy it? Well, I also decided that no amount of logic would ever convert my adversary, but would hopefully open their heart enough for the Holy Spirit to prod and introduce Himself (God does P3). In other words, it isn’t me who does the converting, but God, and ending the conversation with the conclusion that I believe in Him just cannot lead there. God cannot be the conclusion; He must be premise. It might drive my adversary crazy, but if he cannot start there, then it will eventually end there, and my interchange will show no fruit.
The mistake we make is to argue that such can be a self-contained apologetic. It cannot, because while we can argue P3, only God can convince people of it. In my opinion, the only worthy goal is to cause our adversary’s heart to pause, and consider God for just a moment, so that He might give our adversary a measure of faith that just might show some fruit. Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. It is that moment I believe we are intended to lead people to, not an opportunity to believe us, but to believe God.
Just my two-cents.
Mike. Could you define faith?
For me, faith is believing God (the word ‘in’ is not missing).
I reread by what I wrote above, and I see that I used the word “faith” twice. I said that an atheist will conclude that “I have faith”. I realize that no atheist will say “You believe God”. It would be self-contradictory for them. They might say “You believe in a non-existant god.” Perhaps I should have said that and left the word faith out. In my mind I was writing to a Christian, so I didn’t think to clarify myself.
My other usage was the idea of helping open someone up to the possibility of receiving a measure of faith from God. In that case, I was in fact referring to the possibility of an atheist hearing a truth about God, and God nudging their heart, if just a little. The question is whether they will let themself follow God, or whether they will dismiss it as a mere chemical reaction to something that homo sapeins have evolved to find appealing (or perhaps angering!).
By the way, I do have some common ground with the atheist when it comes to people believing in God. I believe we “evolved” over time to think we perceive God, where the rest of the animal kingdom does not perceive anything that is not physical. Where I part with the atheist is that I believe God is who evolved us, and that we are in fact perceiving Him. The atheist dismisses the perception and may in fact become numb to it over time. My hope is to pierce the numbness, and for them to realize God is really reaching out to them. I cannot do that by engaging only their brain, and I so make my faith a premise of the discussion, not the conclusion.
I think that Apologianick meant to respond to you Mike. See his comment above about “pistis”
In reply to your question about pistis: “My question at this point is to ask what the word pistis itself means. Did it suddenly take on a totally different usage when used in the Bible?”
Absolutely not. Assuming we would both consider Strongs Concordance a valid source, it defines pistis as “moral conviction of religious truth, or the truthfulness of God or a religious teacher, especially reliance upon Christ for salvation.” I completely agree, and in all practicality, I mean this to fall under my definition: believing God.
Strongs also lists other aspects, such as one’s system of religious truth. But it finally ends with the following list of synonyms: assurance, belief, believe, faith, fidelity.
I would hate to see a discussion of presuppositional apologetics get caught up in your doubt of my application of the word faith. Basically, I did a word study on righteousness, and found that righteousness for a person comes from believing God (Abram believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness) and obeying Him (when the Israelites obeyed God’s law, that was their righteousness). When you get to righteousness in the NT, instead of believing and obeying, the theological vocabulary switches to faith and works, but they are the same thing. Believing God is your salvation, or grace by faith (believing God when He says Jesus died for your sins); rewarded for works in Heaven (the only works He rewards are those that come from obeying Him). Faith without works is dead; believing God without obeying Him is a dead faith. So, amidst all of the meaning of pistis, the practical application in my life is the aspect of believing God. Believing Him in scripture, in nature, and in prophecy.
Had I realized what you were asking, I would have opened my Strongs concordance from the beginning and just used that definition without going into any of the practical application, which is what my definition is: not a replacement for what the Greek means, but a quick phrase that lets me see the common thread from Abram’s first expression of faith in Genesis 15, through James’ discourse on faith and works, and beyond.
So, what is your question behind your question? If you are willing to assume we agree on the definition of faith (at least for discussion’s sake), what problem then are you seeing in my original post? Or are you just trying to understand me? That’s fine, too.
Correction to my wording: faith and works are the same things as belief and obedience, for the purpose of defining righteousness.
I am very skeptical of presuppositional apologetics. I was “argued into the kingdom” by evidential apologetics. When Christians tried to talk to me starting with the Bible, I told them that I didn’t even believe in God, so why would I listen to a book that people think was written by an entity that doesn’t exist? Presuppositional apologetics had no effect on me as an atheist.
At the same time, however, I can recognize that God works in many different ways. There are probably people who are swayed by presuppositional apologetics. Given that possibility, I am thankful there are presuppositional apologists out there.
@Thomas. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that. Could you elaborate?
Reply: Sure. I think of Sye Tenbruggencate on Unbelievable? asking Paul Baird how he knew that he even existed. If you could be wrong, well your worldview is problematic. Now we all know that there are things that we could be wrong about and knowing God exists doesn’t change that. I claim it as knowledge God exists, but that doesn’t mean that I can be wrong when doing something like, say, mathematics. The position instead started with doubt. That’s exactly what Descartes did, until something was arrived at that could supposedly not be doubted. It’s an entirely modern system. Not biblical at all.
Thomas: What would you say the epistemological basis for evidentialism is?
Reply: I would say metaphysical realism of the Thomistic variety. We start with reason and the belief that there is objective reality. If all you start with is the ideas in your head, you can’t escape your head. You cannot get from an internal idea to an external reality. Hence, I reject the ontological argument. All I do is state that there is a real world that can be known. You can ask “How do you know that?” That’s a great question for idealists to debate. Realists don’t even think it’s worth bothering with.
Thomas: Presuppositionalism assumes that (a) God exists, (b) people suppress the truth about God (Romans 1.18), and (c) it’s possible to demonstrate, by unpacking a non-theist’s worldview, that they act as if (a) were true—thus showing (b) to be true. For example, in conversing with an atheist, I might say, “You think that some things really are evil, but your worldview isn’t able to support any objective, authoritative moral system. Aren’t you acting inconsistently with what you say you believe?”
Reply: Oh I agree atheists have to borrow from Christianity, but the point is that philosophy can not prove Christianity, EVER. That’s not anti-philosophy. I love philosophy. That’s just real. You cannot sit down in an armchair and reason your way to an empty tomb. Sometime sooner or later you will have to look and that looking will require evidence.
Also, you can reason your way to general theism. I agree with that. That does not prove Christian theism, but it proves a slice of theism consistent with Christianity.
I don’t think presuppositionalism can take a person all the way to Christianity; I think Sye Tenbruggencate overestimates the power of presuppositionalism. But it can lead a person to theism; and at that point I’m quite willing to use evidence for the resurrection of Jesus to contend for specifically Christian theism. Non-theistic worldviews face problems, perhaps insurmountable problems, when it comes to providing a basis for knowledge, logic, morality, science, and so on; theistic worldviews—worldviews which have at their centre the existence of God—don’t have those problems; but I don’t see why one must presuppose the triunity of God or the inerrancy of the Bible to have a rational basis for knowledge, logic, morality, science, and so on.
You suggested that the epistemological basis for evidentialism is
What is reason? What are laws of logic?
Hi Thomas. Yes. Sye does go way too far and especially when he says that people that use a style like mine are sinful in our use of apologetics. Now if you want to use an argument from reason, go ahead. That’s fine. I don’t favor that necessarily, but okay.
Now you ask what is reason first off and your second post is about how I know it’s valid. Well look, if you don’t know reason is valid, there’s no starting point. You can’t even say God is the starting point because you have to use your reason to say that God is a starting point that can bypass the problem of reason, but that’s the reason you just rejected as valid. What you’re doing is starting with an idealist position. That’s not mine. I start as a realist. You can try to reason with yourself how you know reason is valid and you’ll never get any conclusions. God won’t save you from that because it would be your reasoning that got you thinking God is a better starting point.
As for the laws of logic, of course those were formulated by Aristotle, but I as a realist consider them properties of being. Being is what it is, it does not contradict, and it is either A or non-A.
How do you know what reason is and what laws of logic are?
One main claim made by presuppositional apologists is that atheists can not account for their use of logic and, therefore, the theistic accounting for it is the best one. This is simply incorrect, logic is and always has been accounted for without invoking a creator. The accounting goes as follows: The logical absolutes — the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, the law of excluded middle — are a set of descriptive statements which describe “the uniformity of nature”, a fundamental property of the nature of the reality we observe. These logical absolutes then provide the foundation for the laws of formal logic, a set of prescriptive laws about what logic can or can not do. (ie. the logical fallacies).
Please note, the laws of logic and the logical absolutes are not the same thing, they are related but separate. The majority of presuppositional claims stem from equivocations. When the apologist claims “using logic to prove logic is viciously circular” he is intentionally using terrible sounding grammar to try to trick the atheist into equivocating the “logical absolutes” with “the laws of formal logic”. Logic is not some fundamental property of reality, as this assertion implies, it is merely a particular system of thought. A man-made creation. Testing a machine to see if the machine works is not circular but is common sense and, furthermore, I do not need to know where the machine came from in order for it to work; the same goes for logic.
To summarize, a simple analogy to the logical absolutes would be abstract mathematics. The number 4 is “transcendent” by the TAG definition. It isn’t a ‘thing’ that ‘exists’. It cannot be photographed, frozen, weighed, or measured. It is always the number 4. It always remains the same. It always remains true.
However, if there were no minds in existence to conceive of the number 4, the shape we currently call a square would still have the same number of sides it has now. It would not physically gain or lose any sides. The abstraction of the number 4 is conceptual, but the concept isn’t dependent on a transcendent mind for the real world underpinning of the concept to remain true.
Hi Mike. There was much said so let me state some matters.
I do not believe Strong’s is really that accurate. I think the Handbook of Biblical Social Values by Pilch and Malina gives a closer definition as can also be seen in “Honor, Patronage, Kinship, Purity” by David DeSilva. Faith is trust in that which has been shown to be reliable. It is to be given to a patron in exchange for a benefit the patron has bestowed on the client. In this case, we give God the Father trust through the offering of Christ given to us. That means that it is not about a belief for we already have to believe that he has given this to us. Keep in mind in a place like Acts 17 in the Mars Hill discourse, pistis is used as a word for proof. Aristotle himself used it the same way.
Why say this? Because faith is usually seen as belief and the idea is that we are supposed to just believe. Faith is not about that. Faith is about active trust in that which has been shown to be reliable. You brought up the skeptic saying you have faith, but the skeptic does not know what faith is and it seems that a false definition of faith is always assumed. It is thought that it is faith that is the cause of belief. Not so. Faith is the result of belief. It is because you believe that you trust.
Now you can say logic alone will not lead someone to the Kingdom. There is no doubt the work of the Holy Spirit is involved, but this kind of statement really doesn’t do much. I can’t control what the Holy Spirit does, but I can control what I do. So am I going to be logical or illogical? Am I going to be loving or unloving? Note that if logic alone cannot win someone, neither can love alone. You cannot love someone into the Kingdom. I believe the Holy Spirit can use loving actions, but I also believe He can use logical arguments.
Your method is showing your worldview is consistent? Great! Excellent! But the problem is that hangs on more of a coherence theory of truth that states that truth is that which coheres. Truth will cohere of course, but that is not enough. If something like the Harry Potter books were perfectly consistent, that would not make them true. That your system is consistent does not make it true. It is what we call a necessary but not sufficient condition. To demonstrate it true, you will have to step outside of reason alone and use evidences, which is exactly what the apostles did.
As for righteousness, my view of righteousness is more along the lines of N.T. Wright. i highly recommend reading his book “Justification.”
I hope that explains matters more.
I’d contend that knowledge—warranted true belief—of universal, unchanging laws of logic, which are essential to the project of rationality, is only possible if God exists. That doesn’t mean we can’t use laws of logic in talking about why laws of logic can only exist and be known if God exists; that’s the beauty of the presuppositional approach.
I agree that knowledge is possible only with God, but I cannot presume that for my opponent. I must demonstrate that. I think it’s just fine to start with “I do know some things” and then look at what my epistemology is. Keep in mind that until Descartes came along, there was not really a branch called epistemology. Of course there were ideas of knowledge, but not a whole branch.
Accepting a definition of faith as active trust, accepting that showing active trust requires you to believe in God already, accepting that no kind of witnessing can work without logic, love, and the Holy Spirit, my position is this…
An argument devoid of God will not prove God. Whatever you posit, the atheist will have a response. Intelligent design? Physics explains why we observe order. Argument for morality? Art? They provided evolutionary advantages to our survival. They then throw at you the problem of evil, God’s omnipotence, whether He really loves everyone, Occam’s Razor, etc. If you do not presuppose God, then you are fighting on their turf.
At least for me, the presuppositional approach does not require me to win the argument or counter their point. It requires only that I accurately represent the truth of God and the universe, both logically and lovingly, and to the best of my own ability. The Holy Spirit will do the rest.
Yes. There can be responses, but are there good responses? If an argument is true, there can be no refutation of it. I only use arguments I think can logically seal the deal, which are for me mainly the five ways of Thomas Aquinas and the resurrection. Note also with the resurrection, even if you presuppose God exists, you still have to demonstrate the resurrection happened. A Muslim presuppositionalist could presuppose God exists and still not believe in the resurrection.
I also do not see how I am fighting on their turf. God is the God of reason as well and He gave us minds that we could reason to the truth. Are you saying God gave us bad minds?
Aquinas’ arguments suffer from a fatal flaw. They assume the universe changes, when science suggests that time itself is just another dimension. Viewed as part of the larger geometry of the universe, one sees that the universe in fat does not change after all, though we are only aware of one part of it a time. Change is there an illusion. Consequently, with not actual change to explain, there is no reason to look beyond the existence of the universe itself… unless you are trying to prove God exists, the very act of which presupposes the conclusion.
Please note that I myself am not persuaded by the argument above. However, the people I have debated usually reduce proofs of God in a similar vein to that above. No matter what the argument, they will see God as a premise of the argument, and once they show that, they’re done with you. “Just another Christian fundamentalist. Next!”
The problem is that unless you are Parmenides or Spinoza, change is pretty much inevitable. If I see one change happen somewhere, Aquinas’s argument is valid. Yes. I know people can argue against a belief system, but if the argument is true, the rebuttal fails. If they are not convinced by a good argument, then they are not one seeking truth. It worries me not.
And on that, I cannot fault you.
Off topic – Apologianick – I appreciate your comments – is there a good introduction to philosophy textbook you would recommend?
When I look at the Bible, I see God and his servants constantly appealing to evidence, especially the evidence of miracles, so that “they may know for certain”. I do not see pre-suppositionalism as a full-blown approach anywhere in the Bible. I think using those arguments as part of a comprehensive case is fine, but my concern is that it is not Biblical. Evidentialism is Biblical. Jesus regularly presented evidence to non-believers with the aim of changing their minds.
Presuppositionalism does not discourage the use of evidence. It discourages the misuse of evidence.
Jesus and the Apostles appealed to evidence to establish the veracity of historical events. They then interpreted the significance of those events in light of 1) the universal knowledge that all men have of the existance and character of God and 2) the wisdom from God that is available to us in the Scriptures.
These two things they always presuppose. They do not appeal to evidence to validate them.
Nor did they need to when they talked to Jews because that was part of the background package of being a Jew. It wasn’t the same when Paul went to Mars Hill and when the early church interacted with Greeks.
The Bible from the get-go presupposes the existence of God. It may present arguments supported by evidence for why one should have faith in God, but it never presents arguments for God’s existence. This it presupposes. Perhaps the presuppositional argument should be viewed more as a proclamation argument — and proclamation is utterly biblical. If we are to be emissaries of the kingdom of God, then the ground we stand on when we proclaim the kingdom should be the ground of the kingdom, not the ground of the unbelieving world. IOW, the presuppositional apologetic is more proclamation wrapped in argumentation, whereas the evidential approach is more purely argumentation, on terms acceptable to the unbeliever/seeker, with proclamation off to the side-lines.
You make a significant, and; I think, profound point about the difference between presuppositional and evidential approaches to apologetics.
This is a good summary, J. W. Recently I put together for our local Reasonable Faith chapter an apologetic taxonomy (here) on different methods at just about the time you posted this.
Your own post is very excellent. Thank you for the link.
Paul’s approach to the Greeks is not vastly different than his approach to the Jews.
When Paul spoke at Mars Hill, he gave them creation, fall, law, and gospel. He declared the one true God, the Creator and Judge. He did not give them arguments for God’s existence. Rather, he pointed out that they already knew of Him.
The primary difference between his interaction with Jews, as opposed to Gentiles, is that He had to spend more time getting the Gentiles up to speed on the teachings of the Scriptures. This is where the Jews had the advantage, being already familiar with them. Paul’s address in Acts 17 is chock full of biblical theology.
And Paul never argued for the veracity of the Scriptures. He merely proclaimed its message to them. He could do this; and so can we, because, as Jesus declared, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
@Salvatore. Of course it doesn’t give an argument. Why should it? Atheism was not the big discussion of the day and in a high-context society like ANE Israel, you didn’t deal with that stuff. It would be assumed you knew that basic background information. The question is do you have any reason to believe someone like Jesus, Peter, or Paul, would have gone away from evidence when they got to the God question when on every other question they use evidence?
Atheism is merely a form of paganism–a variation on a theme. And I do not see why we ought to approach these modern-day polytheists, who feign disbelief in the existence of the Deity, in a fundamentally different way than the Apostles approached the polytheists of their day. They know in their hearts that there is a Creator who will hold them accountable at the Judgment. They are suppressing this knowledge.
And I do not, for my part, say that we should never use theistic arguments. There may be specific cases where they will help specific individuals to see the folly of particular objections. But we must keep in view the goal is to get them to the cross. It is counter-productive, in my view, to.go on and on about the Big Bang Theory or the latest idea about cosmology to come down the pike.
We ought not to get hung up on any line of argumentation that is not found in Scripture. As much as I love and respect R.C. Sproul; I believe he is wrong when he states that the first and most important job of the Christian apologist is to prove the existence of God; and that, “after that, the rest is easy.”
Really? The rest is easy? Things like getting them to acknowledge their sinfulness and that they deserve condemnation? Like getting them to believe the Deity and humanity of Christ? His sinless life of service to others, raising the dead and healing the sick? That what he taught is the truth? That He died to save sinners and rose from the grave?
Those things represent the easy part?
So, I don’t know what Jesus or Peter or Paul would have done in any particular situation or engagement. All I know is what the Bible tells us that they did and said; and I am convinced that we cannot go wrong majoring in the things that they majored in.
@Salvatore. Except that atheists are not polytheists. There were polytheists in that time period and there were atheists. Paul interacted with the Stoics who were the pantheists and the Epicureans who were the atheists. I also meet several atheists who are convinced there is no God and I see no reason to think they really believe there is but just want to deny it. I think they have deluded themselves enough that they have convinced themselves of something they’d otherwise find true. I also agree the rest is not easy, though I think it is easier in a sense. If you have God, it’s easier to show the New Testament since someone can be more open to miracles.
The majority of unbelievers are “atheists” in the sense that they deny the existence of the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture (and who also revealed certain facts about Himself in nature as well). This has been the case throughout history. In ancient times, people worshiped birds and animals, the sun and stars, the forces of nature and the spirits of forest; giving credit and praise to them for those good gifts that had actually come to them from the hand of the true God
Today, not a lot has really changed. The language the pagans use, and the way they wish to frame their worship and their liturgies, have changed. But they are still worshiping the creation.
Steven Hawking is a man who denies the Christian God. He claims there is not enough evidence to convince him of the existence of a god. So, if he says he lacks belief in any deity, why not just take him at is word?
First of all, because the word of God calls him a liar. (Not just him, of course; I’m guilty too, as are you.) I could go to a number of passages, but Romans chapter 1 states it so plainly: God has make Himself known as Creator and Judge to every human being. And yet, a brilliant and educated man like Dr. Hawking teaches that the universe came into being through fluctuations in a quantum vacuum within an 11-dimensional space that has always existed. He concludes that, therefore, no god is needed to explain creation. He even wrote a best -selling book to the praise of the impersonal forces that he celebrates as his maker; worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator. How is this not idolatry?
Richard Dawkins gives similar commendation to random, unguided mutation and natural selection to explain his origins. We are to believe, essentially, that matter organized itself into living, breathing creatures that can reason, and love, build cathedrals and hospitals and rocket ships, and write poetry, all without God. Worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator; how is this not idolatry?
Sam Harris claims that we can produce an objective system of morality strictly from empirical science. No revelation from God needed. Indeed, revelation is to be rejected as giving us a horrendous system of morality that has been the cause of much evil throughout history. Now when men set up their own ideas of right and wrong, and exalt them above what God has revealed; do they not set themselves up as gods in His place? Worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator. How is this not idolatry?
These men and millions like them are pagans. They are polytheists. They are idolaters. It makes no difference that they will not admit that what they are worshiping are, in fact, idols. We ought not to be fooled by them.
I’ve read each of the new atheists you speak about. What do I say? Romans 1 is describing a history of mankind and how they got to where they are. I do not think it means they are really lying or that everyone is that way. There are principles that should be simple to see that can be buried away so much so that one can claim that they know there is no God. How is this not idolatry? I don’t deny that all men by nature worship something, but that is not the same as being a polytheist. If they don’t believe in any deities, I accept that.
Salvatore Some apologists apparently believe that everyone really believes in God, and anyone who claims not to believe is simply lying, or angry at God. They may claim that atheism is a form of rebellion, or that God is so indelibly written on everyone’s heart that no one can deny belief. God can’t be indelibly written because people who have never heard the Gospel do not automatically become Christians unless they are taught, children do not automatically become Christians without teaching either.
The argument is frequently supported by the claim that it is impossible to know definitively that there is no God, therefore an atheist must be an agnostic. This argument is fallacious as it incorrectly assumes that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. It is also ironic, since it is just as impossible to know definitively that there is a God. Therefore, theists also must be agnostic. But this isn’t the only problem with this criticism.
I think the place of presuppositional apologetics is really to quickly and confidently demonstrate the consistency of the Christian worldview and the irrationality of the non-Christian. The Bahnsen – Stein debate illustrated that quite well.
I’ve read and listened to more Gordon Clark than Van Til and understand there are substantial differences but I’m not all that familiar with what those differences are.
Looking forward to rest of the series!
Thanks for your response, Chris! I wonder–do you know of somewhere to listen to/watch that debate? It seems to be particularly famous among presuppositional apologists.
Hi J.W. – I think it’s a legendary debate! Here it is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1hSx2evTGM
I believe there are MP3’s of the debate floating around on the web as well. Also http://www.cmfnow.com has all of Bahnsen’s material available for purchase.
Hope you enjoy!
If you want to download the MP3 of the debate, we have it up linked here: http://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/greg-bahnsen-vs-gordon-stein-the-great-debate/
Thank you! I’ll be listening to it forthwith.
@SlimJim- just wanted to let you know I’ve now listened to the whole debate. Wow! I see why presuppositionalists like this one. I will be posting a review/summary in the near future (hopefully Monday-ish). Thanks for the link.
I have wanted to study what Van Til truly taught. His presuppositional apologetic initially struck me as an anti-apologetic. Although I am sympathetic to those who would strictly use the presuppositional approach in sharing their faith, this significantly narrows one’s defense for the gospel and doesn’t take advantage of the strides evidentialists have made. The person who only knows how to use a hammer will only see nails. It helps to have the right tool for the job. You can take an alternator off your car with a hammer, but it isn’t advisable.
Thanks for your response. I’ve been reading a whole lot of presuppositional apologetics recently and I’m still not sold on it with evidences. A number of people commenting here obviously think differently, and it seems that some presuppers (I take it that’s the right phrase to use) do indeed utilize evidences (like John Frame). I’m just about to a significant part of Greg Bahnsen’s book “Van Til’s Apologetic” which talks about evidences so perhaps that will make me rethink it a bit.
I think that you’re right in utilizing the analogy of tools. To reject presuppositionalism outright would be like removing a tool from the kit, while to use presuppositional apologetics alone is like restricting yourself to just one tool. Nice analogy.