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Practical apologetics #1: What is presuppositional apologetics?

Updated: Feb 1

You're probably thinking "Ugh, not another 'what is apologetics' article quoting 1 Peter 3:15", and you're right, there's enough of those to go around. The purpose of this article (and the following series) is slightly different, which we believe might justify squeezing in just one more of these before we venture of into different applications of apologetics later in the series. There seems to be a lack of online material that aims to make presuppositional apologetics practical and easy to grasp to a wider audience. Mainstream apologetics websites and articles all seem to assume the evidential method is the way to go, and hence don't take long to introduce their readers to some form of the cosmological argument or the moral argument to get the started in apologetics, without offering much of a prolegomena (introduction) to the subject which can act as a governing framework for answering objections (delivering an apologia / apologetic) in any situation.



At Apologetics Central, we believe that these popular arguments have a place in discussions with unbelievers, but we'd like to introduce you to a different (and probably new) way of approaching the subject known as the presuppositional way, which acts as a framework in which these arguments can be presented in a Biblical fashion. In order to do this, let's set up a scenario:


Imagine you're sitting at a campfire with your unbelieving friend, far away from the sounds and distractions of the city, surrounded by nature and underneath the stars. How would you approach your friend in conversation about Christianity? Your desire for your friend would be that he (let's assume your friend is male) share with you in the freedom and peace that the Gospel gives you as a Christian, and hence you'd want him to place his trust in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. So, how do you get your friend to convert to Christianity? Where do you start?


The Gospel


According to the Bible, faith comes from hearing the message of the Gospel, so naturally, that's probably where you'll start.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Romans 10:14-17, ESV


Arguments or the Gospel?


You're probably wondering why we're talking about sharing the Gospel when this is an introductory post on apologetics.


If the Gospel is left out of the conversation and the focus is solely placed on some argument for the existence of a god, your friend would be no closer to faith in Christ than he was before hearing all the arguments, as faith can come only if your friend understands that he is a sinner in need of a saviour, and that God has presented a Saviour in the person of Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead on the third day.


Your friend is not in need of more facts, or more information in order to convert. His problem is a moral problem, not an intellectual problem. This is, of course, because the person already has knowledge of God (the true God) that is being suppressed in unrighteous so that they are without excuse for denying God:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools

Romans 1:18-22, ESV


The issue for the unbeliever is therefore not intellectual, but moral. This idea is reinforced in Psalm 14:1.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.

Psalm 14:1, ESV


Calling unbelievers who deny the existence of God, "fools", is making a moral judgement, not an intellectual judgement. Unbelievers love sin, and hate God. By their nature they will reject / suppress the knowledge of God, and substitute their own gods in God's place, thereby exchanging the truth for a lie.


Evangelism or apologetics?


So, which is it now, evangelism or apologetics? Why are we mixing the two?


Evangelism is defined as the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness. Apologetics can be defined as a reasoned defence of the Christian faith (Gospel).


The close connection between evangelism and apologetics is immediately noted above. It is indeed evangelism that seems to bring us to the need for apologetics. If the goal is to spread the Gospel in order to grow God's Kingdom (as Jesus commanded us in the great commission of Matthew 28), there doesn't seem to be a place where apologetics can stand separate from evangelism (unless perhaps in helping to strengthen the faith of Christians). This indicates that apologetics is not merely a field of "intellectual jousting" as Bahnsen put it in his article on evangelism and apologetics. It is a matter of eternal life and death. The way in which we do apologetics should ultimately serve the Gospel, and be consistent with the message of the Gospel.


It's not hard to imagine that our unbelieving friend, after hearing the message of the Gospel, might have a few questions as to "why" we believe the message of the Gospel ourselves. This is where evangelism turns into apologetics, and it is this context we find in 1 Peter 3:15, the most quoted verse by people who have an interest in apologetics:

...but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect...

1 Peter 3:15, ESV


A widely neglected part of this verse is the first part of the command to Christians, that should honor Christ as the Lord before we make the defense to anyone who asks it from us. This naturally leads us to our following section:


Worldviews and presuppositions


Let's say you've outlined the Gospel and its importance to your friend, and he's started to ask a few questions in order to challenge your belief in the message you brought him. How do you proceed from here?


Before we can outline the high level procedure that is applicable to every apologetical situation, we first need scout the battlefield and understand our own - and our opponents' worldview and commitments. This is a well documented and essential part of conflict and debate:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War


No person approaches a particular subject (like the existence of God) with neutrality as every person has a worldview with certain presuppositions. Greg Bahnsen defines a presupposition as follows:

A “presupposition” is an elementary assumption in one’s reasoning or in the process by which opinions are formed. … a “presupposition” is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging, foundational perspective (or starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, presuppositions have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, being treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest immunity to revision.

Greg Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic


He defines a worldview as follows in his Introduction to worldviews lecture series:

A worldview is a network of presuppositions that are not tested by natural science and in terms of which all experience is related and interpreted.

It would therefore do us well to examine the worldview and presuppositions of ourselves as Christians, and of our unbelieving friend before discussing the proper procedure for engaging in apologetics with our friend. The controversy between the believer and unbeliever is in principle an antithesis (a person or thing that is the direct opposite of someone or something else) between two complete systems of thought, or worldviews, (Christian and non-Christian) involving ultimate commitments, or presuppositions.


The Christian will view all facts through his / her Christian presuppositions, and the unbeliever will view all facts through the lens of non-Christian presuppositions.


Paul seems to mention something related to the above in Colossians 2:

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge... See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [elemental principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:3b, 8, ESV


What does Paul mean when he talks about the "elemental principles of this world"? It seems like Paul is using this phrase to expand on the type of philosophy that is according to "human tradition" and that is not "according to Christ".


BibleRef (a ministry of the popular GotQuestions website) explains it as such:

"Elemental spirits," in this context, is a reference to the basic assumptions we use in our thinking (Galatians 4:3). If a person starts from a blatantly anti-spiritual standpoint, they are going to come to anti-spiritual conclusions. This, again, reminds us that fallen human wisdom can be at odds with Christ's teachings.

Commentary on Colossians 2:8, BibleRef


Basic assumptions can be described as our presuppositions.


Hence, our non-Christian unbelieving friend has certain non-Christian presuppositions that govern his / her thinking. All facts will be interpreted by these governing presuppositions, and all conclusions reached will be consistent with these presuppositions. And us, as Christians, will have certain Christian presuppositions that will govern our thinking. As Christians, our philosophy (how we think about the world around us) will be (or ought to be) distinctly Christian, or as Paul puts it, according to (governed by) Christ.


We would therefore be wise to understand what these presuppositions are that govern our thinking and our friends' thinking in order to effectively engage them in conversation - otherwise the two groups will simply speak past each other, making little progress (as is evidently clear in the countless YouTube debates on the subject).


A. The Christian's View


Readers familiar with presuppositional apologetics will be somewhat familiar with the quip "Unless you start with God you cannot know anything at all". This is drawn from Proverbs 1:7.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7, ESV


If you don't fear the Lord, if you don't properly view yourself as a creature made in the image of God, you don't have [in principle] any knowledge.


This is tied up in the Christian's view of the world:

  • The universe is created, and it was created good.

  • God created the animals, each according to their kind, and they were created good.

  • Man was created in the image of God, with the ability to reason and use his senses to navigate the world.

  • God continues to uphold the universe in an uniform manner.

  • God has revealed Himself to us (man) within us, and around us in nature and in Scripture.

  • God has created man in His own image, and wrote His law on our hearts so that all men are with excuse for denying Him.

  • Man has rebelled against God, and is a sinner that deserves wrath.

  • Despite man's rebellion and the corrupting effect of this sin on ourselves and nature around us, the image of God remains intact within us, and nature continues to reveal God around us.

  • God bestowed mercy on mankind by providing a Saviour in the person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who died on the cross in atonement for our sins and rose on the third day, thereby defeating death.

  • God has given us His Word, that is literally "God-breathed" and hence infallible, so that we can come to know the way of salvation in Christ, which can act as a guide for us to correctly view the fallen world around us.

  • Once a person converts to Christianity, the Holy Spirit grants them a new heart, and grants them the fear of the Lord. From that point forward, the Christian, viewing the world through the interpretive lense of Scripture, will see the world for what it truly is: a created world scarred by sin.

  • Moreover, Christians have the promised curatorship of Christ, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), and whose “Spirit of Truth” will certainly “guide [them] into all the truth” (John 16:13).


B. The unbeliever's (non-Christian) view


Since we aren't responding to any particular form of unbelief (e.g. atheism, agnosticism or Islam) at the moment, but just to any general form of unbelief (non-Christian), we'll restrict the unbelievers view into at least two beliefs beliefs that form part of their worldview:

  • The Christian worldview is false.

  • The fear of the Lord is not the beginning of knowledge

Even the agnostic, who claims to not know, has at heart non-Christian presuppositions as they deny what Paul teaches in Romans 1, that all men do know God and are without excuse for denying Him.

To oppose the outlook of God's revelation is to work against everything that you are as a creature of God. Men know the truth about God - not a god, but the living and true God with all His divine attributes but attempt to suppress it (Romans 1:18ff.).

Greg Bahnsen, Prolegomena to Apologetics


The non-Christian will not think of themselves as image of God (and all that it entails), but will rather try to think of themselves as ultimate, in the sense that their interpretation of the facts surrounding them is the alpha and the omega, not the interpretation given to the facts by God when He created the facts.


The unbelievers, therefore, do not view themselves as being scarred by sin or inherently evil, standing in need of a Saviour. They do not allow Scripture to act as the interpretive framework for the world around them.


The unbelievers also share in the following characteristics (which they would deny, but is important if we are to accurately diagnose their problem to give an effective defence) according to the Bible:

  • They are created, like us, in the image of God.

  • They are fools (in the moral sense).

  • They are sinners in need of God's grace.

  • They are rebels who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.

  • They do not seek God, but hate Him.

  • Their thoughts are darkened.

  • They will construct a philosophy that is according to human tradition and not according to Christ. This philosophy will aim to interpret the world around them in a way that removes God from the picture, as they try to become their own gods or serve their false gods.

  • The reason for their unbelief is rooted in sin, and not a lack of information.


C. How does this work out practically?


Dr Jason Lisle's book, The Ultimate Proof of Creation, has some awesome illustrations that can help understand the above described antithesis between worldviews. The following illustration is taken from his book:



Both characters are looking at the same fact, but both characters are interpreting the fact through their presuppositions (or ultimate commitments). The unbeliever has a non-Christian commitment, and hence the interpretation of the particular fact (the fossil) will always attempt to remove God from the picture - this might be a subconscious endeavour on the part of the unbeliever as most people aren't aware of their presuppositions.


The Christian, on the other hand, having received grace from God and having been given a new heart will serve the Creator in their interpretation of the facts.


Both interpretations will be valid, according to the presuppositions (that is to say internally consistent, not necessarily objectively true). To argue the facts with unbelievers will therefore only leave both parties in frustration, as the question of presuppositions are rarely (if ever) addressed in the debates we see online.


Common notions, or neutral ground?


Now that we've laid the groundwork, we can proceed with the discussion with our friend.


Let's say, for example, that your friend is now questioning the existence of God. How would you approach the answer (apologetic) that you are called to give according to 1 Peter 3:15? Some have considered to first start out by seeking neutral ground or common notions that exist between you and the unbelieving friend from where you can attempt to prove that God exists. These common notions can be anything, e.g. particular assumptions, beliefs, or most likely something like the laws of logic and / or the ability to reason.


But given the Biblical teaching about the antithesis between the Christian and the non-Christian worldview above, would this be appropriate?


We've already quoted Colossians 2 above, and we'll do so here again:

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge... See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [elemental principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:3b, 8, ESV


Paul infalibally declares that all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom are hidden in Christ - including that which we would be of use in apologetics. To agree with the unbeliever on common notions shared by both the Christian and the non-Christian worldview, would be admit to the unbeliever that they are generally ok with their view of the world, as far as it goes. It is to admit that the unbeliever's unbelief is due to a lack of information, and that the unbeliever would make the reasonable Christian interpretation of the facts before him if the facts were presented to him. It would be to admit that some of treasures of knowledge and wisdom are not hidden in Christ, and that some knowledge and wisdom can be justifiably gathered in outright rebellion against Him.


The unbeliever, in reality, needs a radical change of worldview. The unbeliever needs to be brought from the non-Christian worldview, into the Christian worldview. The unbeliever needs to be shown that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and not their own autonomous rational capacities.


The Bible provides a two-step approach for answering "fools" (remember that calling unbelievers fools is a moral charge, not an intellectual one - like the fool that believes there is not God):

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5, ESV


A. Answer not a fool according to his folly


The folly of the fool is their continued reliance on themselves as the arbiter of truth. It is their continual denial of that which is made evident to them by God that leaves them without excuse for denying Him. It is their ungodly presuppositions that are set up to leave God out of the picture when they encounter Him.


If we were to answer the fool according to his folly in a way that makes him wise in his own eyes, it would be to accept his claim that he is just looking for some more information in order to judge whether God actually exists or not. It would be to admit (wrongfully) to the unbeliever that any fact can be properly understood without the fear of the Lord. It would be falsely assure the unbeliever that his interpretation of the facts is ok as far as it goes. It is to ignore the scarlet stain of sin that runs deep in the heart of the unbeliever. The Bible, on the other and, does not take the subject of sin as lightly as most apologists do:

"None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Romans 3:11-18, ESV


All of the above concessions will leave the unbeliever in a happy state, a false assurance in their intellectual capacity to understand the facts presented to him (on his own un-Christian presuppositions), and will leave the Christian on the defensive as the unbeliever continues to use his autonomous reason to unpick the reasons and arguments provided to him one by one - it makes the unbeliever wise in his own eyes, and more importantly, leaves the unbeliever (in a theoretical sense) with the false assurance that they are with excuse for denying God, contrary to Romans 1.


The only god that can be proven by accepting the unbeliever's presuppositions, is a god that is (as Van Til puts it) correlative to the unbeliever's mind, and even then, this god can only be proven in terms of a probability. The Christian God is far from view, and this is just what the unbeliever asked for.


Answering the fool according to his folly in way that makes him wise in his own eyes, is in a sense to agree with the unbeliever that there are "neutral starting points" that the unbeliever (with the Christian) is justified in accepting. The apologist that approaches the subject of apologetics in a "neutral" sense has already ignored the Bible, as suddenly the Bible is no longer the guiding light, but something that must be proven with the autonomous light of reason. The unbeliever has actually already won the debate! The unbeliever was able to get the Christian to abandon his ultimate commitment, and treat God as a hypothesis that is to be tested by believer and unbeliever alike. These neutral starting point, it turns out, is simply the unbeliever's presuppositions.


...if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Psalm 11:3, ESV


B. Answer a fool according to his folly


So how do we then answer the fool?


We start off, as we did earlier, by being aware of our own and our friend's presuppositions. We then proceed to attack the shaky foundations of our unbelieving friend's non-Christian worldview with gentleness and respect. We do not abandon our commitment to Scripture as our foundation, but we assume the unbeliever's worldview for the sake of argument in order to show how their worldview is internally inconsistent, and lacks any sort of justification (or solid foundation) for knowledge and other things the unbeliever took for granted because they are made in the image of God, living in His created and orderly world that He upholds.


We identify the idol our friend has erected in his suppression of the truth of God in unrighteousness, and we press on the idol by pointing out its inadequacy as a foundation. We indicate how our friend has actually been stealing from the God they know exists in order to make their experience of reality intelligible.


This process hurts, which is why Peter implored us to proceed with gentleness and respect. It hurts because we are striking at the unbeliever's fundamental beliefs about reality. We are striking at the very structure of beliefs (and presuppositions) they (sometimes in their rebellion, subconsciously) erected in order to suppress the knowledge of the God they hate because of their sin. James White described the unbeliever as someone who is keeping a beach ball below the water. The work of the Christian is not to convince the unbeliever of the beach ball, but rather to pry up his fingers to expose that which he already knows. The beach ball, of course, is an allegory of the knowledge of God revealed to them which they suppress.


After we have pointed out the folly of our friends' non-Christian presuppositions, we invite them to adopt the Christian worldview for the sake of argument, and show them how in the Christian worldview we have a solid foundation in the triune God of Scripture that allows us to justify knowledge, reasoning, morality and many other aspects of everyday life that the unbeliever took for granted, but implicitly destroyed in their denial of God.


So, if our unbelieving friend asks us how we know that God exists, we should answer honestly as Christians. Rarely do we know God exists because of the cosmological argument (which is shaky at best). We know because God revealed Himself to us, and gave us a new heart so that we can profess this truth rather than suppress it. We then point out that God reveals himself to our friend as well, and that our friend has actually been taking much for granted in his everyday life, without honoring God for all the wonderful gifts He has given him.

To oppose the outlook of God's revelation is to work against everything that you are as a creature of God. Men know the truth about God - not a god, but the living and true God with all His divine attributes but attempt to suppress it (Rom. 1:18ff.). Paul says that God has revealed it to them (all of them), and not left it up to natural theology or philosophical argumentation; they know the truth about God inherently and confront it everywhere they look around their environment: natural, social, psychological.

Greg Bahnsen, Prolegomena to Apologetics


But if there's no neutrality / common notions, how do we expect our conversations to be productive?


The unbeliever, even though they would deny it due to their rebellion, are made in the image of God, living in His world and breathing His air.


When we are, as Christians, entering into discussions with unbelievers in order to share the good news of the Gospel, we are appealing to them as rebellious creatures made in the image of God living in His world. We are not appealing to them on the basis of their view of the world (e.g. that they are blobs of matter formed by a blind process). We know that they can understand what we are saying, follow our logical argumentation and comprehend our message precisely because what they believe of the world is false. We have a lot in common with unbelievers because the Christian worldview is true, hence we can successfully engage with them without sacrificing our ultimate commitment. In actuality, we would not have been able to engage with them outside our ultimate commitment!


The following graphic illustrates the situation. The unbeliever shares a lot in common with the Christian, but only because his worldview is false, and he is suppressing that which has been made plain to him.



The apologetic procedure summarised


Greg Bahnsen perfectly summarised the above in the following manner:

So when men who work from humanistic assumptions come to refute the gospel, they oppose themselves and are prevented from finding the truth. Our reply must be from a different foundation, from the foundation graciously planted under us by God in His saving mercy: His Word. Although our task may not be reciting memory verses, it is to represent the teaching of scripture in the most clear and forcible way, showing its internal strength in contrast to the foolishness of humanism.
We never go over to our opponent's foundation except to do an internal critique of it; our weapons are not forged by the enemies of God but by the Spirit of God. These alone can meet the onslaughts against our faith without wavering. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down reasonings, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to obedience to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

Greg Bahnsen, Prolegomena to Apologetics


Conclusion


The above was in essence a long winded way of saying that Christians should believe their Bibles. We should believe what God teaches about reality, about human nature, about sinners, and about what the sinner's problem is that leads them to denying His existence.


We shouldn't abandon the Bible when defending the faith. Rather, the point of the apologetic is to expose how dependent we actually are (Christians and non-Christians) on the triune God as revealed in Scripture to being with.


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