February 7, 2013

Presuppositional Apologetics: A Summary

by Mike Riccardi

ApologeticsAs I implied yesterday, there are various different methods, or schools, of apologetics, or defending the Christian faith. One such school is called presuppositional apologetics, which I hope to describe today. Though my goal is to save evaluation for tomorrow, it will probably be easy to figure out that I think favorably of presuppositionalism. But my goal today is to simply give a summary description of what presuppositionalism is.

Like other approaches, the presuppositional approach to apologetics attempts to make a case for the reasonableness of Christianity by defending the faith against objections (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and by refuting the claims of other worldviews and religions that are antithetical to Christianity (cf. 2 Cor 10:5). Although presuppositionalism may place more emphasis on the active refutation of contrary belief systems than other schools of apologetics, all schools of apologetics agree on these basic tenets.

Two Myths Busted

Two main principles, however, distinguish presuppositionalism from other schools of apologetics like evidentialism or “classical” apologetics. The first is that the notion of neutrality is a myth. Because God is the Creator of the world, nothing falls outside the realm of His Lordship. This means that nothing—not even facts or knowledge—is neutral. All things are either (a) in submission to or (b) are hostile to Christ’s Lordship.

The second principle is that the notion of human autonomy is a myth. Again, because God is the Creator and man is the creature, man has neither the right nor the true capability to evaluate reality (i.e., to reason) independently from his Creator. This is especially the case in light of the fact that humanity’s fall into sin has corrupted all aspects of our being, including our ability to reason. Because man is created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27) with the law of God written on his heart (Rom 2:15), he instinctively knows that God exists as his Lord (Rom 1:19–20). But because of the effects of sin on the heart and mind, man suppresses that truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). Whereas before the Fall Adam rightly relied entirely upon God’s revelation for his knowledge of the world, after the Fall man begins with himself and his interpretation of reality as the starting point for knowledge. Non-Christians believe that their opinion, rather than God’s revelation, is the final court of evaluation of the world. Yet the presuppositionalist stresses that God’s Lordship and man’s sin destroys all “neutrality” and renders everything—including reason and the laws of logic—dependent on God Himself.

Presupposing the Truth

Because of these principles, a key distinctive of presuppositional apologetics is that the apologist must presuppose (hence the name) the truth of the Bible and the Christian worldview. We should not, even for the sake of argument, concede that reality might be any other way than it actually is. This too sets presuppositionalism apart from other schools of apologetics, which seek to find some neutral common ground with an unbeliever by which to reasonably evaluate Christian claims.

For example, an evidential apologist may provide archaeological evidence, which can be evaluated from an empirical point of view, Cosmologicalin order to argue for the reliability of the Bible. Or, a classical apologist may employ a logical argument (like the Cosmological Argument) to argue for the existence of God, which the unbeliever can judge to be reasonable or unreasonable. In either case, the unbeliever is presented with evidence and the apologist “demands a verdict.”

These methods seem legitimate on the surface, but in reality they presuppose that unbelievers think, reason, and evaluate evidence from a neutral perspective. But because (a) God is the Creator and Lord of the universe, and (b) in reality, the truth revealed in the Bible is actually true and not just potentially true, and (c) the unbeliever sinfully evaluates evidence from his own presuppositions and not neutrally, therefore (d) the apologist should not surrender the presuppositions which underlie the Christian faith. We must presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in our apologetic encounters.

What Makes Our Truth Better than Their “Truth”?

When I speak of “the truth of Christianity” as our proper starting point, it’s important to clarify that such truth is known from God’s revelation alone. As I mentioned above, even before sin had corrupted the human mind, man’s knowledge depended upon God’s revelation. Thus, a Christian, who has been redeemed from the power of sin and now has the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), must also depend on God’s revelation for understanding the world. We know things to be absolutely true not because we are omniscient. Nor do we claim to be inherently smarter than anyone else. Rather, One who is omniscient has graciously revealed Himself in a way that can be understood to the one who has faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in our various apologetic encounters with unbelievers, we should make clear that the truths claimed in the Bible are absolutely true, but that our certainty comes not from our own knowledge or capabilities, but from God’s knowledge clearly and graciously revealed to us.

Arguing Transcendentally

Further, a hallmark of presuppositionalism is to argue transcendentally. This means that the reality we live in—meaning, thought, fact, knowledge, etc.—logically presupposes that the God of the Bible exists. Said another way, In Him All Things Hold Togetherpresuppositionalists argue that the Christian worldview must be true because of the impossibility of the contrary, given the world we live in. No other worldview can account for why the laws of logic exist, or why most human beings have an instinctual moral sense of right and wrong. Without the God of the Bible, argument, reasoning, morality, and natural order are all impossible.

Therefore, a major task of the presuppositional apologist is to demonstrate the failure of opposing worldviews to consistently account for what we see in the world. For example, without the God of the Bible as the personal, absolute, sovereign moral lawgiver, one cannot account for why we are horrified by the crimes of Nazi Germany. It’s why we can agree that those acts were objectively evil, and not merely “right for them, but wrong for me.”

Apologetics and Evangelism

Finally, we must remember that our apologetic encounters are inextricably linked to the preaching of the Gospel. Our ultimate goal is not merely to win arguments, but souls. Remembering that the unbeliever’s problem is not a lack of evidence or information but the fact that he is blind to the glory of Christ as revealed in the Gospel (2 Cor 4:4), we must preach the Gospel from the Word of God in hopes that God will grant faith and repentance by means of the preached Word (2 Cor 4:6; Rom 10:17).

This does not mean that the presuppositionalist is against giving evidences for Christianity. We must certainly “make a defense” to everyone who asks (1 Pet 3:15). We simply realize that this evidence must be presented in accord with the presuppositions of biblical revelation, and that the giving of evidence is not decisive in changing the unbeliever’s heart. In other words, since the unbeliever’s problem is not intellectual, but ethical, we must argue, persuade, and preach as if we know that only the Gospel can solve the ethical problem.

Summary

In summary, presuppositionalism emphasizes that because God is Creator and Lord, humanity is not free to reason apart from God, and there is no neutral ground from which to reason with an unbeliever. All knowledge depends on God’s revelation, and thus as we engage unbelievers we must presuppose the Triune, redeeming God of the Bible, rather than lead the unbeliever to suppose he is free to believe or disbelieve. Presuppositionalism also argues transcendentally—i.e., that Christianity is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. Finally, the presuppositional apologist seeks to be consistent with a biblical anthropology, and recognizes that it is only the Spirit’s regeneration through the preaching of the Gospel that can change the unbeliever’s heart.

How did I do? Do you think this accurately represents the teaching of presuppositional apologetics?

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • kevin2184

    Answering your questions: Excellently and YES!

  • Michael Coughlin

    I suppose you did well, Mike. :)

    I would argue that everyone is a presuppositionalist; it is just that not everyone admits nor acknowledges that fact. A lack of presupposition is effectively a denial that a presupposition is needed or in existence, which, itself, is a presupposition.

    Read that sentence again until it makes sense. Seriously, it does. Can you tell I read Frank Turk?

    Nevertheless, in the interest of receiving my own feedback and possibly edifying the brethren, I share my personal post which was one of the first few posts on my own blog from 2010. Delete my comment if this is considered shameless or if you disagree with my points.

    http://www.michaelcoughlin.net/blog/index.php/2010/04/presuppositional-apologetics/

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      I appreciated your post, Michael. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Frank Martens

    :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/koineman Jeremy Dow

    Great post, Mike! I’m going to share it with others.

    One argument I’ve come up with to show unbelievers that they are not as neutral as they like to think is the following. (Whether this counts as presuppositional apologetics, I’m not sure.) …

    The task of proving anything is actually quite a tricky business and not
    nearly as simple as the naturalist or empiricist may think. The problem
    is that as soon as you appeal to something to establish a belief, that
    thing you appealed to now becomes your authority—call it authority A. If
    you then appeal to yet something else to establish authority A, then
    that new thing to which you have appealed has now become your higher
    authority—authority B. If you continued like this, you would go on
    forever in infinite regress. Nobody does that, though, so all people
    have some starting point, some point beyond which they do not go, some
    unprovable foundation on which they build their belief system. Otherwise
    they could never form any beliefs at all, scientific or otherwise. In
    this respect, everyone is on the same footing, whether they are
    evolutionists, scientists, theists, atheists, Christians, and so on.

    In my opinion, this is where so many in the scientific community go
    wrong, especially atheists. They are not right to claim or imply that
    Christians are at some kind of disadvantage because they rely on faith
    while they (the atheists or skeptics) allegedly examine the straight
    facts in an unbiased manner. The truth is that they are not neutral at
    all. Their beliefs ultimately rest on some unprovable authority, and
    that because of their own personal presuppositions. That is certain
    because that authority cannot be substantiated by any higher authority.
    Otherwise it would no longer be the ultimate authority.

    The question then becomes: Since nobody is neutral, why would the atheist choose a system that is so hopeless as opposed to one that is so hopeful? Obviously, in light of the above, it’s because he or she wants to.

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      Nobody does that, though, so all people have some starting point, some
      point beyond which they do not go, some unprovable foundation on which
      they build their belief system.

      Yup. That “unprovable foundation” is one’s presupposition.

      They are not right to claim or imply that Christians are at some kind of
      disadvantage because they rely on faith while they (the atheists or
      skeptics) allegedly examine the straight facts in an unbiased manner.

      Yes indeed. This is basically saying in another way that the notion of neutrality is a myth. One of the axioms of presuppositionalism (and I would say Biblical Christianity in general) is that there are no brute facts. Because Christ’s Lordship extends to every facet of life, both material and immaterial, facts, reasoning, evidence, etc., are all presented and used either in submission to His Lordship or in opposition against it.

      Since nobody is neutral, why would the atheist choose a system that is
      so hopeless as opposed to one that is so hopeful? Obviously, in light of
      the above, it’s because he or she wants to.

      Precisely. And the Bible says he or she wants to suppress that truth because of unrighteousness. Because to the depraved mind, it is better to live with a myth of autonomy in a meaningless universe than to submit one’s heart and mind to the God that created them and His revealed will.

      Looks like you’re a presuppositional apologist, my friend!

  • http://www.facebook.com/samvandyke Sam Van Dyke

    That was a great explanation. Thanks for taking the time to write that.

    I am curious about your statement: “all knowledge depend’s on God’s revelation”. Could you expand that more? I recently wrote a paper contrasting knowledge with Truth and would love your comments.

    Thanks

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      Presuppositionalists would say that no one can know anything soundly apart from God and His revelation, whether general or special revelation. Even the unbelieving scientist, for example, who, to be sure, knows things by virtue of observation and testing, etc., depends on God to order the world in a consistent manner to make those tests and observations reliable.

      For example, everyone knows that if you throw something off a roof, it’s going to fall and hit the ground because of gravity. But gravity is only consistent because of God’s providential and orderly governing of the universe. If the universe were merely random and self-governing, there would be no guarantee that the laws of science would continue to function the same way in the future. We might be pretty sure based on the way things have always worked in the past, but we couldn’t know for certain.

      • http://www.facebook.com/samvandyke Sam Van Dyke

        Maybe I am thinking too hard about this. But your response was that no one can know anything soundly without God’s revelation. You seem to be referring to truth when you said that.

        Would it be fair to say “truth depends on God’s revelation” or “all knowledge depends on God’s consistent nature and his revelation” or “true and false knowledge can only discerned by God’s revealing”.

        Knowledge is known without revelation, its truth that’s not known.

        Maybe I am way off, I don’t have much knowledge…

        • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

          Maybe what’s throwing me off is your category for “false knowledge.” I don’t think it makes sense to say one can know something that is false. That is, no one can know that 2 + 2 = 5. They can believe it and be wrong. But I would say, by definition, what is known can only be true.

          • http://www.facebook.com/samvandyke Sam Van Dyke

            Could you say “all knowledge is truth”?

          • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

            I think it sounds clumsy to say that — too much abstraction to be helpful. I could only agree or disagree with that statement after some explanation and concrete examples.

            I would say what I said before: What is known can only be true, or, One cannot know something that is false.

          • http://www.facebook.com/samvandyke Sam Van Dyke

            Thank you for this dialog, it has been very mentally stimulating :D The reason I ask is because I had written in a recent paper “all knowledge in all the universe equal’s truth”, but a friend challenged it, so I took it out.

            I really did enjoy your article, I already emailed it to two friends. I would love to discuss this more. I came to the same place in my conversation as with my friend (also a pastor). Can knowledge equate with truth?

            I haven’t met you before. I know Jesse Johnson and love reading Nate B.’s articles. How long have you been at Grace Church?

          • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

            Yeah, I’m hesitant to fall one way or the other because I’m not sure of all the implications. It doesn’t strike me as right to simply equate knowledge with truth, because I think of knowledge of being what is known, and it’s very likely that there are true things that are not yet known.

            Also, I think it makes a difference to say that something is “true” versus something is “truth.” The latter seems to have a canonical ring to it; “truth” is the standard. The former seems simply to be a descriptor of that which corresponds with reality. Maybe there’s no real organic difference, but that might explain my hesitance. You might enjoy a couple of other posts on the issue: one from me, and one from Matt Waymeyer.

            I’ve been at Grace Church for about 3.5 years now. I joined the pastoral staff when Jesse left about a year ago. Do you still attend Grace?

          • http://www.facebook.com/samvandyke Sam Van Dyke

            That does make sense. My only thought is that because we associate truth with scripture, we leave behind its organic meaning. I find it helpful to return to that thinking to better explain my position when reasoning. I will look into those articles, I am sure they have a treasure of more insights.

            I moved to Central CA 4.5 years ago. My fathr-in-law graduated from the Masters Seminary in 2008, the same year I married his daughter. We remained at Grace for 6 months, then followed them up here. My brother Lukas VanDyke still goes there.

  • Drew Sparks

    Mike,

    I have studied and read the top presuppositional apologists, and I think you portray this school of thought just they have. I am curious to see how you evaluate it, and would love to see you do the same with classical apologetics or other forms of apologetics.

    I consider myself a hybrid of classical and presuppositional. I have a great respect for this system and have learned so much from it as well as employ several of their arguments. Sadly, many classical or evidential apologists miss the power of this type of thinking. Some of my favorite apologists are James White and Greg Bahnsen, but I think there are some flaws with the system as a whole, but I will not engage in it until you evaluate.

    My Thanks to you and the cripplegate team for always putting good material out.

    • Bobby Grow

      Drew, did you attend Calvary Chapel Bible College back in the mid to late 90’s (96-97)? Your name sounds familiar to me, and the guy with the last name of Sparks that I knew was also interested in apologetic ministry.

      • Drew sparks

        Sorry to disappoint you bobby, but I was not even in high school then. Ironically, I do want to be in full time apologetic ministry and I am a student at veritas evangelical seminary which happens to share a campus with ccbc.

        • Bobby Grow

          I’m getting old, oh my ;-)!

          That is ironic! My dad lives in Murrieta. I know of Veritas, it is a beautiful campus (resort)!

          As I thought about it further, the guy who I knew is named James Sparks. But I just remember him being big time into apologetics. Enjoy your studies.

  • Alex H.

    Hey Mike,

    First time commenter, long time reader. Great post!

    How would you use the Presuppositional approach with world religions that hold similar (not identical) distinctions to Christianity? For example, RCC, Islam, or Mormonism.

    Thanks!

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      This is an excellent question, Alex.

      The presuppositions of the Christian are based on the existence of God and the authority of Scripture. Because these groups (and moreso RCC and Mormonism than Islam) all at least pay lip-service to both of those presuppositions, a lot of times a presuppositional practice just looks like appealing to the authority of Scripture.

      Also, there’s another angle to try with Islam and Mormonism (and JWs as well), since they deny Trinitarian Monotheism. Denying that God exists as One Being eternally in Three Persons, and thus in relationship with Himself—precludes the
      possibility of a God who is consistently both absolute and personal. Indeed, an absolute, personal God must by definition be absolutely personal.

      Yet “absolutely personal” is almost a logical contradiction in terms. For a being to be absolute, he must be entirely unaffected, unable to be acted upon and never responding to another being. And for a being to be personal, he must interact in relationship with other beings, being affected and responding to the actions and affections of those with whom he shares a relationship.

      How can any being can be absolutely personal, then? He must exist as a Trinity—an absolute Being entirely transcendent over His creation, yet existing in three co-eternal, co-equal Persons who interact with each other and enjoy each other in their eternal relationship (cf. John 17:5). Though they might claim
      otherwise, the Unitarian god of Islam and the Watchtower Society, and the polytheism of Mormonism, cannot consistently be both (a) absolute and (b) relate to humanity in a personal manner, because there is no such relationship within his own absolute essence, no such unity existing in diversity. Only the Trinity—the God of the Bible—can account for absolute moral standards, which require an absolutely personal moral lawgiver, and for unity amid diversity in
      the creation (e.g., various species of dogs, birds, trees, etc.). In other
      words, reality logically presupposes the Trinitarian God of the Bible.

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  • SLIMJIM

    I think it was well stated Mike!

  • EvangelZ

    Well said Mike.

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