Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Presuppositional Apologetics

Many people make a broad distinction between presuppositional and evidential (or classical) apologetics. The classical method enjoys a rich history (for instance B.B. Warfield would be considered a classical apologist), while the Presuppositional approach really came to fruition with Van Til and Greg Bahnsen (though I've read various things from different theologians in church history that have sounded very presuppositional).

I recall hearing Michael Horton say he was presuppositional, but really, whatever "worked" for a particular person is what he would use. He may be on to something- if understood in this sense: I believe that one must be attentive to where a non-believer “is at”. Presuppositional arguments might be good for a hardcore atheist or pseudo-intellectual type. For instance, a guy I work with is a left-wing liberal, and well educated. Presuppositional arguments are very effective to get him to think. An evidential approach though may be perfect for someone who assumes much of the Christian worldview already. Sharing the classical argument that Christ was either “liar, lunatic or Lord” might be very helpful in getting to the gospel, quickly, for someone who's ready. From my viewpoint, both methods are possible.
That being said, my real love in apologetics is the presuppositional approach. Probably the best example of this approach is the debate between the late Greg Bahnsen and the atheist Gordon Stein. “Does God Exist?”. It’s best to track down an audio copy of this debate. This is not "easy listening". It requires one's complete attention, and multiple listenings. It's not something one can put on and then "multi-task". It will be of tremendous benefit to anyone interested in presuppositional apologetics.

If you’ve only listened to it once, my opinion is that it gets better the more one listens to it- it really takes time to chew and digest the arguments from both sides. Quite frankly, the first time I listened to the debate years ago, a lot of it went over my head. I subsequently burned off a copy to CD in which I divided each segment up to individual tracks, and took the time to focus on each section. Sometimes driving to work, I’d listen to only Bahnsen’s segments, other times just Stein’s. If wasn't until I took a seminary-level class in presuppositional apologetics that it all really made sense to me. Presuppositional arguments are like dynamite. They are extremely powerful.

Bahnsen doesn’t deny the use of reason, argument, and evidence. His point though is that these only make “sense” and find meaning in the context of a theistic worldview.

In response to the question “Is God good?” Bahnsen responds he knows God is good because:

“He saved me. He created me. He made the world and He made it good. He sent His son into the world to die for my sins. Many of these evidences are quite convincing to me, but I don’t use them outside of a word-view in which they make sense, in which they would be taken as true. If you mean is God good in such a way, or can I give you evidence that you would accept? That would depend on what your presuppositions are.”

In response to the question, “What solid evidence do you have to maintain that the Christian faith is the only true religion with a god? There are religions far older, and more or just as wide spread which millions of people consider valid,” Bahnsen answers,

“I have not found the non-Christian religions to be philosophically defensible, each of them being either internally incoherent or undermining human reason and experience… I will give just a couple of illustrations. Obviously I’m not going to cover all of them.

For instance, Hinduism assumes that God, or Raman is the impersonal and universal soul of the unchanging one of which all things are part (for instance). And because of that particular outlook, Hinduism says that everything in terms of my normal experience of the world and thinking is Maya, or illusion. Because everything in experience and thinking presupposes distinctions. But that is contrary to the most fundamental metaphysical fact, and that’s that there are no distinctions, all is one. So basically, Hinduism tells me that all my thinking, all of my reasoning is illusion. In so doing, it undermines reason.

You can take religions such as Shintoism, it’s view of Commi, the forces that permeate the universe, or Taoism, the ordering force of the universe. And they are impersonal forces, and as such are even less than human beings because they don’t have volition or intelligence.”

I point these things out to enforce the fact that presuppositional arguments are not an appeal to fideism. The employ reason, argument, and evidence. Bahnsen says elsewhere (not in the debate):

"God wishes for us to be rational: to exercise and improve our reasoning ability in understanding, propounding and defending the truths of Scripture. And as Locke observed, this reasoning ability does not begin or end with the teaching of Aristotle. To be rational is a trait much broader than the use of syllogisms (although they certainly have their place). The kind of rationality or reasoning that we will employ in defending the Christian faith involves not only study of formal logic (patterns or abstract forms of inference), but also attention to informal fallacies in ordinary language, the use of inductive reasoning, the handling of empirical evidence in history, science, linguistics, etc., and especially reflection upon the demands of an adequate worldview in terms of which all such thinking makes sense."

Bahnsen was keen on exposing the prejudice of non-Christians in regards to the "facts." In evaluating arguments against Scripture, Bahnsen uses arguments very similar to Josh McDowell:

"The third indication of prejudice in the criticism of the unbeliever is that he or she has not taken account of the actual evidence which is publicly available regarding the text of Scripture. If the critic had taken time to look into this subject, he or she would not have offered the outlandish evaluation that the Biblical text is unreliable. This came home to me with great force after taking an advanced course on Plato in graduate school, a course which took account of the textual criticism of the literary corpus of Plato's works. Our earliest extant manuscript of a work by Plato dates from right before 900 A.D. ("Oxford B," found in a Patmos monastery by E. B. Clarke), and we must remember that Plato is thought to have written roughly 350 years before Christ -- thus leaving us with a gap of over twelve centuries. By contrast, the earliest fragments of the New Testament date less than fifty years after the original writing; the bulk of our most important extant manuscripts dates from 200-300 years after original composition. The text of the New Testament is remarkably uniform and well established. The reliability of the Old Testament text has been demonstrated by the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.

The overall authenticity and accuracy of the Biblical text is well known to scholars. Frederick Kenyon concluded: "The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation, throughout the centuries." Such assessments from competent scholars could be multiplied easily -- which only goes to show the prejudice that operates in the thinking of unbelievers who offhand criticize the Bible for "very likely" having a dubious text."

I point all these things out for any of you interested in learning about presuppositionalism. Sometimes those of us who spent years in evangelicalism will over-react to the multitudes of Arminian apologetics we've been exposed to, and wrongly embrace a form of presuppostionalism that is an over-reaction to folks like Strobel, Geisler, McDowell, Paul Little, etc. When I first gripped presuppositional apologetics, it was just one more weapon against Arminian theology. The more though I learned about it, the more I learned to employ some of the work from the Classical approach.


Paul La Chapelle said...

James, this is very helpful. I have purchased the MP3 and will attempt to do as you suggest. Study each section of the exchange. Keep up the careful and thoughtful work. Paul.

Anonymous said...

I've tried driving and listening to lectures and such. This is multitasking, and for complex subjects it isn't easy to do both things well. Better to tinker around the house or basement while listening, less dangerous too.

Keep up the good work James


Apolonio said...

Although my epistemological worldview leands towards the reformed, with regards to apologetics, I seem to be either evidentialist or classical.

But let me ask you questions so I understand the presup. better. Suppose I was an atheist and you were the theist. You ask me what my presuppositions are. I say, my cognitive faculties function properly or that they are reliable. They can detect truths and is a source of justification if it functions properly. You ask me why. I say it is a properly basic belief. How does a presup. respond?

Jim said...

I wont give you a direct answer (your question is somewhat vague) but James Anderson wrote a brief essay comparing Plantinga and VanTil that you might find interesting if you haven't seen it.

Also, since you're RC, I know there are RC responses to Plantinga you might be interested in if you haven't seen them (check on Sudduth's list - which is, I think, where I saw them mentioned years ago).

Jim said...

Sorry. That was actually not the link I intended to send (though it is a brief comparison). This is what I meant to send:

FM483 said...

I personally find the area of apologetics interesting. One of the talk shows I listen to regularly is Law&Gospel hosted by Pastor Tom Baker on KFUO. I can recall Pastor Baker's thoughts on apologetics as a little unusual yet Scriptural. For instance, the entire emphasis in God's Word is that allmen come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ and repent of their sins so that by receiving Him they may are saved. All the apologetics in the world will not save one person. It may convince a person that perhaps there is a Supreme Being or god and even that Christianity is the best of many alternative belief systems. But it will not result in the salvation of one single person. Only the Gospel of Christ is the power to create and sustain saving faith in a person. Pastor Baker is also noted for remarking that there is absolutely no evidence for the truth of the Christian faith outside of the Word of God. That may sound strange upon first hearing, but think about it for a minute. Although St Paul says in Romans that the existence of God is evident throughout creation nd we in the modern age are still impressed with the mathematicalprecision of the heavenly bodies and the physics of the universe, there is no real proof of the Christian message outside the bible. It is all a mystery, or sacramentum. Once a person has received saving faith, then all the apologetics in the world make sense and reaffirm the Christian message.

Frank Marron

Apolonio said...


Thanks for the link. I may respond to some of them one day.

Yes, I do know Zagzebski's volume although that was 1993 I believe and Plantinga has developed his arguments since. Cf WCB and Kvanvig's volume.

L P Cruz said...

Just commenting and a side note.

For Lutherans though (as Frank alluded to), apologetics does not start with God, it starts with Christ and His Cross. This is where I think such an approach is slightly hard to follow when dialoging with an atheist who is even wondering even if there was a God who sent Jesus at all, although I am at home with it

James Swan said...

test for Christopher

Jim said...


I just realized your question wasn't vague - I just misread it. :-)

Now that I re-read it - I'm not sure how to answer... :-)


Brian Knapp said...

"I recall hearing Michael Horton say he was presuppositional, but really, whatever "worked" for a particular person is what he would use. Amen to Horton here."

I think Bahnsen might take issue with Horton calling himself a Presuppositionalist while at the same time saying "whatever worked for a particular person is what he would use." :)

*If* Presuppositionalism is the exclusively Biblical approach (as both Bahnsen and Van Til argued, and as I would agree), then one cannot consistently be an evidentialist in some cases and a Presupper in others. That doesn't mean we should not offer evidence, of course - only that we do so with the realization that a person's presuppositions are what are ultimately in control of the conclusions they will come to (without a change of heart).


Anonymous said...

Mr. Swan (if it is "Dr." please forgive me),

I thoroughly enjoy this post. With all due respect, I do have at least one concern and a question.

You wrote:

"Some will argue that only their way of doing apologetics is the correct way. This is unfortunate. I am quite 'ecumenical' in my approach to apologetics- I believe that one must be attentive to where a non-believer 'is'."

Correct me if I am wrong, but it appears you have a self-referential problem here. Would you argue that only an "ecumenical" approach to doing apologetics is the correct way? You appear to be doing so at the beginning of your post, but if you answer "yes" then you are evaluating your own actions as "unfortunate". If you answer "no" then it appears to significantly weaken the case you have made at the beginning of your post. One might resolve this by arguing that there is not a right and wrong way to do apologetics at all, but I could not affirm such an approach as biblical. I think it more likely to be the case that there is a right and wrong way to do apologetics, and that it is biblical, and that perhaps it is not captured as fully in one particular traditional systematic presentation of an apologetic as some have hoped or claimed. I hope this does not come off as disrespectful or unclear. Neither is my intention.

"I recall hearing Michael Horton say he was presuppositional, but really, whatever 'worked' for a particular person is what he would use. Amen to Horton here."

Because I know you I am assuming you are only promoting a biblically qualified or warranted pragmatism here as opposed to absolute pragmatism and are doing so as over against a theoretically sound but impractical apologetic presentation. Is this correct? If not I do not think I can "Amen" this. If so then it goes back to by concern about the self-referential problem mentioned above.

James Swan said...

This is a three year old blog entry, and frankly, I don't recall the context of Horton's comments.

However, based on my blog post, I think Christians need to keep in mind where someone is "at." I was recently asked by my church to field questions from a nineteen year old Italian Roman Catholic. She and her boyfriend came to my house, and we spent about three hours just talking about the differences between Romanism and Reformation. She granted a lot of basics common to both of us already. I didn't need to say things like, "One cannot really know what an orange is without being a Christian."

The emphasis of discussion therefore was the Bible as foundational truth by which to build a worldview upon. This involved as well, the use of evidences.

I think that's probably what Horton meant- it's indeed what I meant.

Anonymous said...

Someone linked me to this post and I did not realize it was so old! My apologies.

I certainly agree with you there. I think you have hit upon the great deal of confusion that comes from the labels used to describe the methods.

Thanks for your response. :)

James Swan said...

Correct me if I am wrong, but it appears you have a self-referential problem here. Would you argue that only an "ecumenical" approach to doing apologetics is the correct way?

I can appreciate the nature of your concern. Looking back over my three year old blog entry, what I stated was worded awkwardly. My point was simply that evidences have a place within presuppostionalism, and also that one must be sensitive to where the person is "at."

I'm assuming you're a prosapologian person who followed the link from the chat channel over here. If I recall, three years ago I was wearied by people coming into channel who just discovered Bahnsen or Van Til, and then went on a crusade to bash everything else (Sproul, Warfield, etc.), as if evidences don't play a role in presuppositionalism. While I don't agree with say, every way Sproul argues, much of the evidence he puts forth can be assimilated into a presuppostional approach. His approach might not beat a hardcore atheist in debate, but his materials will definitely benefit someone say, with a core belief that the God of the Bible exists (say, a Roman Catholic).

This evening in the chat channel, someone said, "Sproul is a terrible apologist." I think this is quite unfair. A better criticism would be, he's not as consistent an apologist because of his non-presuppositional approach. If he's such a "terrible" apologist, one needs to account for the scores of people I know that benefit from his materials, including myself.

If I had to rewrite this entry, I'd change some of the lines to make it more consistent.

Thanks though for your comments, and I think you make great points about the consistency (or lack thereof) with the entry as it stands.

James Swan said...

I have a few minutes, I think I'll simply slightly revise the entry. Thank you both for your comments.