Apologetic Methods, apologetics, Presuppositionalism, The Bible

Inerrancy and Presuppositional Apologetics: A different approach to defending the Bible

question-week2Scripture is inerrant because the personal word of God cannot be anything other than true. -John Frame (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 176 cited below)

One of the most difficult issues facing evangelical Christian apologists is the doctrine of inerrancy. I’m not trying to suggest the doctrine is itself problematic. Indeed, I have defended the doctrine in writing on more than one occasion. Instead, I am saying that defending this doctrine in an apologetics-related discussion is difficult. Here, I will explore one way that I think should be used more frequently when discussing the doctrine.

What is the problem?

There are any number of attacks on inerrancy and Biblical authority, generally speaking. Very often, when I discuss the Bible with others in a discussion over worldviews, I find that the challenge which is most frequently leveled against the notion of inerrancy is a series of alleged contradictions. The second most common objection is some sort of textual criticism which allegedly shows that the Bible could not be without error in its autographs. A third common argument against inerrancy is to quote specific verses and express utter incredulity at their contents.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the definition of inerrancy is often misunderstood. For simplicity’s sake, I will here operate under the definition that “The Bible, in all it teaches, is without error.” I have already written on some misconceptions about the definition of inerrancy, and readers looking for more clarification may wish to read that post.

How do we address the problem?

Most frequently, the way I have seen apologists engage with these challenges is through a series of arguments. First, they’ll argue for the general reliability of the Bible by pointing out the numerous places in which it lines up with archaeological or historical information we have. Second, they’ll argue that these historical reports given in the Bible cannot be divorced from the miraculous content contained therein. Given the accuracy with which these writers reported historical events, what basis is there to deny the miraculous events they also report?

Other apologists may establish inerrancy by rebutting arguments which are leveled against the doctrine. That is, if one puts forth an argument against inerrancy by pointing out alleged contradictions, these apologists seek to rebut those contradictions. Thus, once every single alleged error has been addressed, this approach concludes the Bible is inerrant.

Now, I’m not suggesting that either of these methods are wrong. Instead, I’m saying there is another way to approach the defense of the Bible.

A Presuppositional Defense of Inerrancy

Suppose God exists. Suppose further that this God which exists is indeed the God of classical Christian theism. Now, supposing that this is the case, what basis is there for arguing that the Bible is full of errors? For, given that the God of Christianity exists, it seems to be fairly obvious that such a God is not only capable of but would have the motivation to preserve His Word as reported in the Bible.

Or, consider the first step-by-step argument for inerrancy given in the section above, where one would present archaeological, philosophical, historical, etc. evidence point-by-point to make a case for miracles. Could it not be the case that the only reason for rejecting the miraculous reports as wholly inaccurate fictions while simultaneously acknowledging the careful historical accuracy of the authors is simply due to a worldview which cannot allow for the miraculous at the outset?

What’s the Point?

At this point one might be thinking, So what? Who cares? 

Well, to answer this head on: my point is that one’s overall worldview is almost certainly going to determine how one views inerrancy. The point may seem obvious, but I think it is worth making very explicit. If we already hold to a Christian worldview broadly, then alleged contradictions in the Bible seem to be much less likely–after all, God, who cannot lie (Numbers 23:19), has given us this text as His Word. Here it is worth affirming again what John Frame said above: the Bible is inerrant because it is of God, who is true.

Thus, if one is to get just one takeaway from this entire post, my hope would be that it is this: ultimately the issue of Biblical inerrancy does not stand or fall on whether can rebut or explain individual alleged errors in the Bible–it stands or falls on one’s worldview. 

One final objection may be noted: Some Christians do not believe in inerrancy, so it seems to go beyond an issue of worldview after all. Well yes, that is true. I’m not saying a defense of inerrancy is utterly reducible down to whether or not one is a Christian or not–as I said, I think evidential arguments are very powerful in their own right. I am saying that inerrancy is impossible given the prior probabilities assigned by non-Christian worldviews and altogether plausible (not certain) given Christian worldview assumptions. 

A Positive Case for Inerrancy

Too often, defense of inerrancy take the via negativa–it proceeds simply by refuting objections to the doctrine. Here, my goal is to present, in brief, a positive argument for inerrancy. The argument I am proposing here looks something like this (and I admit readily that I have left out a number of steps):

1) Granting that a personal God exists, it seems likely that such a deity would want to interact with sentient beings
2) such a deity would be capable of communicating with creation
3) such a deity would be capable of preserving that communication without error

Therefore, given the desire and capability of giving a communication to people without error, it becomes vastly more plausible, if not altogether certain, that the Bible is inerrant. Of course, if God does not exist–if we deny that there is a person deity–then it seems altogether impossible that an inerrant text could be produced on anything, let alone a faith system.

I  consider this a positive argument because it proceeds from principles which can be established (or denied) as opposed to a simple assertion. It is not a matter of just presupposing inerrancy and challenging anyone who would take it on; instead it is a matter of arguing that God exists, desires communication with His people, and has brought about this communication without error.  Although each premise needs to be expanded and defended on its on right, I ultimately think that each is true or at least more plausible than its denial. Christians who deny inerrancy must, I think, interact with an argument similar to this one. Their denial of inerrancy seems to entail a denial of one of these premises. I would contend that such a denial would be inconsistent within the Christian worldview.

Note that this argument turns on the issue of whether or not God exists. That is, for this argument to be carried, one must first turn to the question of whether God exists. I would note this is intentional: I do think that inerrancy is ultimately an issue which will be dependent upon and perhaps even derivative of one’s view of God.

Other Books

One counter-argument which inevitably comes up in conversations about an argument like this is that of “other books.” That is, could not the Mormon and the Muslim (among others) also make a similar case.

The short answer: Yes, they could.

Here is where I would turn to the evidence for each individual book. Granting a common ground that these claimed revelations–the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qu’ran, etc.–are each purported to be inerrant and that their inerrancy is more probable on a theistic view, which best matches reality? In other words, I would turn here to investigate the claims found within each book in order to see if they match with what we can discern from the world.

The argument I am making here is not intended to be a one step argument for Christian theism. Instead, it is an argument about the possibility of an inerrant work.

iw-poythressAppendix 1: Poythress and Inerrancy

Vern Poythress provides an example of how this approach works. In his work, Inerrancy and Worldview (my review of this work can be found here), he continually focuses on how worldviews color one’s approach to challenges presented against inerrancy such as historical criticism, certain sociological theories, and philosophy of language. One example can be found in his discussion of historical criticism:

The difference between the two interpretations of the principle [of criticism] goes back to a difference in worldview. Does God govern the universe, including its history, or do impersonal laws govern it? If we assume the latter, it should not be surprising that the resulting principle undermines the Bible… It undermines the Bible because it assumes at the beginning that the God of the Bible does not exist. (Poythress,  Inerrancy and Worldview , 53, cited below)

Yet it is important to see that my approach here is different from that of Poythress. His approach seems to be largely negative. That is, he utilizes presuppositionalism in order to counter various challenges to the Bible. When a challenge is brought up to inerrancy, he argues that it of course stems from an issue of worldview. Although this is similar to my approach, Poythress never makes a positive argument for inerrancy, which I consider to be a vital part of the overall defense of the doctrine.

Appendix 2: Standard Presuppositionalism and Inerrancy

I would like to note that I am not attempting to claim that my defense of inerrancy here is the standard presuppositional approach. The standard presuppositional approach is much simpler: the apologist simply assumes the absolute truth and authority of God’s word as the starting point for all knowledge.

It should not surprise readers that, given this approach, most (if not all) presuppositionalists embrace the via negativa for defense of inerrancy. That is, the standard presuppositional defense of the Bible usually is reducible to merely pointing out how the attacks on Scripture stem largely from one’s worldview, not from the facts.

Thus, one of the foremost presuppositional apologists to have lived, Greg Bahnsen, writes:

[I]f the believer and unbeliever have different starting points [that is, different presuppositions from which all authority comes for the realm of knowledge] how can apologetic debate ever be resolved? [In answer to this,] the Christian carries his argument beyond “the facts…” to the level of self-evidencing presuppositions–the ultimate assumptions which select and interpret the facts. (Bahnsen, Always Ready, 72 cited below).

It should be clear that this standard presuppositional defense is therefore very different from what I have offered here. The standard presuppositional defense simply reduces the debate to “starting points” and attempts to show contradictions in other “starting points” in method, exposition, or the like. My defense has noted the vast importance of worldviews in a denial of inerrancy, but has also offered a positive defense of inerrancy. Yes, this defense turns on whether God exists, but that can hardly be seen as a defect or circularity in the argument.


Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.

The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til– I explore the presuppositional method of apologetics through a case study of the man who may fairly be called its founder, Cornelius Van Til.

Debate Review: Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein– I review a debate between a prominent presuppositional apologist, the late Greg Bahnsen, and a leading atheist, Gordon Stein. It is worth reading/listening to because the debate really brings out the distinctiveness of the presuppositional apologetic.


Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).

John Frame The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010).

Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


11 thoughts on “Inerrancy and Presuppositional Apologetics: A different approach to defending the Bible

  1. You are confusing what is knowable from what is believed to be understood. These are not synonyms. What is knowable is the same for everyone everywhere all the time and is independent of the person trying to know how things really are. What is understood may or may not be the same for everyone everywhere all the time but is dependent on how the person frames how he or she believes how things really are. This makes what is believed to be understood relative to the individual, and this relativity renders claims to knowledge to be suspect. So how can we find out if the belief is true independent of the believer?

    Well, to adjudicate this question and establish whether or not a belief is merely relative or true for everyone everywhere all the time requires some method that is independent of those doing the inquiry. What we need is something other than relative beliefs, other than subjective understandings, to carry out the adjudication. I suggest reality.

    Asserting that your interpretation of what this god must be like is a necessary starting point to figuring out what this god is like starts with the conclusion you wish to verify. Asserting that biblical inerrancy must begin with belief in god’s inerrancy communicated successfully starts with the conclusion you wish to verify. You have relegated reality’s arbitrating role to be irrelevant. This is not an auspicious beginning, so let’s try another approach.

    Forget entirely about those who agree or disagree with the specific conclusion you seek to verify. Look strictly at the kind of reasoning you use here and see if this method works for gaining knowledge about anything else.

    Posted by tildeb | June 17, 2013, 8:33 AM
    • I think you missed the core of my argument, which was not that the Bible is inerrant because God is inerrant. Rather, the argument is that if God is conceived of in way x, then inerrancy is far more probable than if ~x is true.

      Now you seem to be claiming I’m begging the question here. I’m not really sure how that could be the case. Suppose I just broadened the argument even more. If a god exists, then inerrancy is vastly more probable than if no god exists. I think this is just intuitively obvious.

      Regarding using this method in other areas. Well that’s really quite easy. Look at any worldview-level question and I could probably name dozens of things on which would rely on assumptions for their viability. Now, you asked me “Look strictly at the kind of reasoning you use here and see if this method works for gaining knowledge about anything else.” I never claimed that it works for gaining knowledge. I only claimed that it changes likelihoods. So no, I won’t do that because I’m not even claiming that. I’m talking about prior probabilities here. So I see no reason to try to make that argument. I never claimed it.

      My point is really much simpler than I think you’re trying to make it: you seem to be interpreting my post here as a much deeper claim. Let me simplify it. All I’m trying to say is that if there is a God, then inerrancy is more likely than if there were no God. (First point.)

      Second point: If God is like x, y, and z, then inerrancy is even more likely.

      It’s purely functioning on that level. I’m not making any deep epistemological points here.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 19, 2013, 1:10 AM
      • “Inerrancy is the belief that what the Bible teaches is without error. The Bible does not teach geocentrism, but features it as part of the background beliefs of the cultural context of the authors. The authors have imported their culture into expressing God’s word, but that does not undermine the teachings.”

        Of course it does! Factual errors undermine the probability that the teachings are correct because it increases the probability of the teachings to contain inaccuracies! After all, if the premises of ANY conclusion are factually incorrect, then the conclusion itself – for all its correct logical form – must have an increased probability of also being factually incorrect.

        Faced with this intractable problem, you then do what generations of apologists have done: change the meaning of words to their opposite in order to keep the form correct!

        If you are attempting to define biblical teachings as both inerrant AND factually incorrect, the problem here is about terminology; you’ve attempted to turn ‘inerrancy’ into a meaning that contains its opposite meaning, namely, errancy. This technique, this allowance for significant factual errors to made, is a very strange way for a god to communicate effectively.

        So, sure, as long as your definition of inerracy means of a kind of innerancy that isn’t inerrant, then we’ll find agreement that the teachings of the bible are inerrant no matter how factually incorrect any of them turn out to be!

        Posted by tildeb | June 19, 2013, 1:43 PM
  2. Hi J.W.

    I think that my only gripe with the doctrine of inerrancy, is how it is understood and treated by other Christians. Due to what I perceive as a lack of biblical understanding by the layity, and quite frankly, some professional Christian philosophers, the doctrine is spouted without a deep understanding of the concept. Then if someone like me questions a person on this issue, we are roundly chastised, or assumed to be a liberal Christian.

    When one studies the Bible; how it developed, it’s history and its transmission, the careful combining of scrolls, its use over the millennia, and still the Bible is (with some small hiccups) consistent in all it teaches, and the slight variations are due to timely written corrections to the people who were the original hearers. This IS a difficult book, and I do note that when I explain the contextural clues to Christian and non-Christian alike, people tend to hear only what they want to hear about Scripture, and pat themselves on the back for my “supporting” their pet thesis.

    But I suppose that like anything else, when one is writing a paper and uses the term “inerrent”, it will have to be defined on the spot in hopes that it will be clearly understood within the context of a paper.

    Please understand that my criticism is not so much inerrancy, but how that term is used and understood and taught.. If this term had been more properly defined, perhaps Bart Erhman would still be a Christian.

    Posted by Lisa Guinther | June 17, 2013, 9:48 AM
  3. Lisa,

    I don’t think it’s a matter of defining the right terms.

    If we read say the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy (one of more authoritative statements), we could summarize:

    Inerrancy is about the original autographs, as written by the original authors in the original languages of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic. Inerrancy is about what these teach and affirm.

    No English version is inerrant.

    Inerrancy of course does not guarantee perfect interpretation nor does inerrancy deal with canon.

    Arguably, inerrancy is like a bit of a Holy Grail, since we don’t have the original autographs (we have very good copies and can construct the original text with a high degree of confidence).

    Here’s a copy:

    Click to access ICBI_1.pdf

    If you want a longer read on Inerrancy, Norman Geisler’s book (Inerrancy) is really good. And if you want a different take on inerrancy from different method, try “The Structure of Biblical Authority” by Meredith C. Kline.

    Posted by Kev | June 18, 2013, 9:54 AM
  4. J.W.,
    first of all, thank you for your ministry! It’s been greatly edifying in my walk with Christ! I too have been dipping my feet in the realm of presuppositional apologetics. Thus far I’ve found the system intriguing and many times confusing. I find myself pulled in and fascinated by the apparently worldview-devastating power of TAG (used properly) and pushed away by many of the people who champion it. It seems that many of my fellow calvinists are quick to declare that presupossitionalism is the ONLY biblical apologetic method and that we are acting sinfully in using evidential methods (although they seem to conveniently ignore the broad use of Christ’s resurrection as an evidence by the apostles in the NT). Anyway, I’m babbling. I had a few questions about your delvings into the presup method…

    – Have you been able to employ it successfully with anyone? Many of the individuals I’ve talked to about it seem to get lost and confused very quickly, although those with a philosophy background hold on a bit longer. I feel like I hardly understand it myself at times, do you think it’s too dense for the layman?

    – I often hear the claim that TAG leads directly to the God of Christianity. I have yet to understand how. It seems clear that it leads to A god, who’s nature includes the things we call logical and moral. Do you get this connection?

    The other question I had, regarding the connection I had noticed between the presup method and YEC movement, I found earlier today discussed in a February article of yours (so thanks for that! Haha). On that note are you familiar with John Sailhamer’s understanding of the Genesis account published in his book “Genesis Unbound”? (Endorsed since its publication by John Piper and others). I found it to be fascinating and quite plausible. Anyway, I’ll stop with the questions :-P. Thanks again for all your hard work on this website! I’ve found it to be very clear headed, challenging and edifying!

    Posted by Lucas | June 18, 2013, 8:50 PM
    • Lucas,

      Thank you for your very kind words. I can’t tell you how much comments like this mean to me.

      It seems to me like you already have a good grasp on presuppositional apologetics: many of its adherents are militantly committed to the notion that it is the only possible way to do apologetics; it has some great points; it has some weak points.

      Regarding your actual questions: Define “successfully.” I think I could answer yes, in the sense that I have seen people be forced to rethink issues based upon presup methods. Moreover, in an integrative apologetic (i.e. combining methods–heaven forbid!), I have found it very useful. Often, when you present evidences, people’s presuppositions color the way they regard that evidence. A presup approach is very useful in pointing these things out and allowing you to bracket (in the philosophical sense) certain issues. So I would say yes, I have used it successfully, though that would depend upon what you define that word to mean.

      Yes, TAG… I agree I am somewhat confused by the claim that it could only be used to get to Christian theism. The way I understand that claim, the only consistent theism is Christian theism, so only it can account for the applicability of the argument itself. Of course, it will do the job much better–using this term rather vaguely–if you are a full-on presuppositionalist and simply hold that you must presuppose the Bible/Christianity in its entirety to make sense of anything whatsoever. If that is the core of your system, then of course TAG will yield the Christian God, for nothing else is even possible as a starting point. As far as the validity of that… well, I’m not quite convinced. If you’re really interested, though, I would commend to you Stephen Parrish’s work “God and Necessity” (not Brian Leftow’s book which stole the title!) in which he utilizes the ontological and transcendental arguments. He is not a presup nor does he argue in that fashion. What he does do is use an argument very much like TAG to argue for theism. And it’s really good. It’s a very high-level read.

      I actually have Sailhamer’s book with me right now to read next. I am finishing another book and that one is either 2nd or 3rd in line on my trip. So yes, I’ve heard of it. I look forward to engaging with it.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | June 19, 2013, 1:33 AM
  5. You say:

    1) Granting that a personal God exists, it seems likely that such a deity would want to interact with sentient beings
    2) such a deity would be capable of communicating with creation
    3) such a deity would be capable of preserving that communication without error

    But you miss the next two steps:

    4) the message in the Bibe has not been preserved without error
    5) therefore our initual assumption – that a personal God exists – is mistaken

    Posted by Andy | June 23, 2013, 7:01 AM
  6. The worldview defense has always made sense to me. I have, after accepting Christ, found that the contradictions that I thought were in the Bible, had very plausible resolutions, and actually strengthed my faith. It means that we must know God and we must read His Word. The beauty of scripture is that the understanding of even familiar verses tends to deepen as you remain faithful in studying. The conradictions do not stop, either. But as I have learned to look to sometimes varied points of view on interpretation, I have been able to either see them as false dilemmas, or wonderful grounds for asking God in prayer for answers.

    When I would not believe, and was openly hostile to God, Christ and the Bible, no amount of argument could persuade me. I was shown that my concept of God was wrong. Then, after accepting Christ, I arrogantly asked “So what?” It was then the answers starting coming. And they have not stopped, almost 20 years later.

    Posted by Scott Watson | August 12, 2013, 7:04 AM


  1. Pingback: Inerrancy and Presuppositional Apologetics: | A disciple's study - June 22, 2013

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