We all have presuppositions that affect what we think and how we make decisions. In fact, these presuppositions influence how we think about the decisions we make. There’s a little more to presuppositions when it comes to apologetics, though. Let’s explore the concept, as well as the term.
By Way of Introduction
In the last post on The Apologist’s Toolbox, we talked about two broad classes of apologetics: objective and subjective styles. Objective schools of thought tend to focus on hard facts, rationalism, and evidence, while subjective schools deemphasize the perspicuity of logic and reasoning.
A presuppositional apologetic commonly falls into this latter camp.
Defining Our Terms
When we talk about presupposing things in the realm of Christian apologetics, we might be referring to one of two things:
First, we might be talking about presuppositions in the context of the phenomena of “taking things for granted,” positing bias, or assuming knowledge or facts. If I presuppose that God exists, I’m less likely to accept arguments against God’s existence. If I presuppose God does not exist, then it’s harder to accept arguments against my preconceived suppositions. This first term is more about a description of something, rather than a term that defines something.
This brings us to our second use of the word “presupposition.” Presuppositionalism, in the context of Christian apologetics, refers to a certain methodology or technique that is described by a few key tenets.
Definition of Presuppositional Apologetics
A brief definition of presuppositional apologetics might be something like this:
Presuppositional apologetics are based on God’s rationality and truth rather than on human rationality and truth, and that God’s transcendence of reasoning means that He is self-authenticating and self-referential. Evidential reasoning may not necessarily be damaging to one’s faith, it must stand that the nature of God alone is both necessary and sufficient for faith.
I realize that definitions like the one above can be somewhat hefty—but I think it’s important to have a (somewhat) succinct foundation to work from. We’ll explore the pieces of it, then we’ll be able to put it back together, hopefully in a more understandable form.
I should clarify something that is not explicit within the definition. This question isn’t always “begged” with some of the other methodologies, so let’s discuss it: “what do presuppositional apologetics presuppose?” A few things, actually:
- God’s existence
- The accuracy and coherence of God’s special revelation (the Scriptures, prophesy, apostolic intervention, and miracles)
- God as the originator of our metaphysical abilities (to know, think, and experience)
With those definitions and points-of-information in tow, we dive into presuppositional waters.
God’s Rationality and Truth vs. Human Rationality and Truth
Full disclosure: I am not a presuppositional apologist nor do I believe that all of the tenets in this view present a complete picture of what is possible in a more fully developed apologetic method. That being said, my goal is to present this view in a way that is fair to subscribers and teachers of this technique. And along with that: I don’t believe that holders of this view are totally off-base—there is definitely common ground that we can explore.
To begin, as Christians (and especially for those in the presuppositional camp) we understand that God is the creator and originator of our abilities to think, to come to know things, and to formulate an understanding of our experiences. However, while God’s ability to create and originate is perfect, we as humans are not perfect—we are poisoned by the broken world in which we live, and we become engaged in biases and cognitive errors.
A presuppositional apologist, looking at this sorry state of mental affairs, would say, “if we know that God is perfect, and if we know that we are imperfect, we should not trust our own abilities to think, know, or experience outside of God’s perfect revelation for what He has expected us to think, know, or experience.” There is much more to this presuppositional epistemology (theory of knowledge), but this is one of the foundational claims that gives force to the presuppositional argument.
Let’s think about it—our senses trick us all the time. Our ability to avoid bias when listening to others is immediately handicapped if the other person supports the “wrong” presidential candidate or has a funny accent. Not only that, but—if we’re being honest—we’ve been wrong on many things, in many situations. Now, do we want to leave something as weighty as our eternal fate in our own flawed and disappointingly inaccurate hands?
No, especially when God has already chosen to reveal Himself to us (Matthew 11:15-27), when the “wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 3:19) is trying to get us to believe that God is foolish, when people spout off “philosophy and vain deceit” (Colossians 2:8) in order to to turn us away from God.
As you can see, the first statement of the presuppositional argument really has Scriptural legs on which to stand. Are there other verses that, when synthesized with these, create a more accurate picture of how we “do” apologetics? Sure, I think so. But for the purposes of this post, simply consider that there is a Scriptural basis for this line of thinking.
God’s Transcendence of Reasoning
“Wisdom” and “understanding” are human constructs—God is completely wise and has all understanding because He is the creator of such categories. As the creator, He is outside the boundaries that limit us. Because this is the case, it may be fruitless to attempt to put God into categories which we know will not contain Him. Can we try to make epistemic proof for God? We can try, but we’re limited by our epistemology—this is the point of the presuppositional view.
And so, because God is bigger than the constructs we are limited by, we might say that our understanding of God (and our apologetic) is autopistic—that is, “worthy of belief in itself.” This means that God can be understood in His revelation because He is self-authenticating and self-referential. These two phrases are part of our original definition, so let’s give them their own sections.
If a thing is legitimately a source of truth, and if it refers to itself as truthful (on the basis of itself and not it’s reference), then it is true. If that sounds confusing, let’s break it down into a categorical syllogism:
- All of God’s claims are true
- God claims to be true
- God is true
Remember the discussion of syllogisms in the Methodology of Apologetics – An Introduction post. This reasoning might be valid, in that the structure is correct. However, it may be that the premises (“God’s claims = true” and “God claims true-ness”) are not sound—that is, the statements aren’t actually correct.
This, as you might imagine, might be where presuppositionalism falls short when it comes to being a missional apologetic. It may very well be that the autopistic nature of God does not require any further proof to be given—“God is God, so deal with it.”
What happens when the atheist responds by saying, “Well, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is god, so deal with that”? The Christian may say, “God has given me His revelation, that’s how I know He’s true.” “And the Monster has given me revelation proving that he’s the true one.” These two will continue to converse in a circular pattern known by some experts as “talking past each other.”
Only God can be self-referential. God is perfect, and humans are broken and fallen. Depending on your interpretation, human nature ranges from willful ignorance to a complete incapacity of understanding God’s truth.
So, our ability to understand God’s truth is—by nature—broken. Not only is this the case, but God is also the author of logic, reasoning, and the pieces of apparatus that process the logic and reasoning. If He’s the originator of our finite abilities to think or to be convinced of things, then it follows that God is capable of more than just our basic and hindered abilities and apparatus of reasoning. And if that’s the case, then why should we be presumptuous to use reasoning (which was created by God) to attempt to rationalize God? The fact that God created reasoning means we don’t have to use reasoning to prove His existence. That means that God is self-referential—His own source of authority. God doesn’t have to have a “citation needed” tag after anything he says, since He’s the originator of citations and needs.
What is it like for us try to understand God with our limited abilities?
Imagine slicing Russet potatoes by hand, dipping them in spices and breadcrumbs, then deep frying those wedges in peanut oil until they’re crisped to perfection. Now, compare this to reheating processed, fast food french fries in the microwave. Those french fries originated from McDonald’s as dehydrated potato flakes. Is reheating them going to be anything at all like the fresh, hand-made, thick-cut potato wedges? Those flimsy mashed potato sticks are nothing like the real thing, and should not be compared to the real thing.
Let’s try to understand God by taking our measly resources (our prepackaged, processed brains) and putting them into a machine that makes these barely-palatable cheap substitutes (our logical constructs) even less appealing—so say those in the presuppositional camp.
Furthermore, two passages may be examined to better understand the claims of presuppositionalism. They are John 8:12-18 and Hebrews 6:13-18. In John 8, Jesus states “even if I do bear witness about Myself, My testimony is true.” In Hebrews 6, the writer explains that “when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater by whom to swear, He swore by himself.” These are both examples of the self-referential nature of God.
God’s Nature is Necessary and Sufficient for Faith
With all that being said, it only makes sense that God’s nature is necessary and sufficient for our faith. From a presuppositional perspective, it’s great that there is logic, science, and personal experience that points us to God—but all we need is Him. As God is the author and provider of faith, there’s no reason to look anywhere else because He is capable of giving us what we need for saving faith in Him.
Closing Up Shop
At its worst extreme, the presuppositional method can easily become a rebranded form of fideism or even just lazy theology. At its best, it’s a way to place full trust in God’s sovereignty to provide hope and knowledge to His people.
Again, the point of this post is to provide an intro to one of many methodologies within Christian apologetics. There will be weaknesses in each technique; there will be benefits to each. That’s okay. At the end of the day, we should learn various flavors of apologetics to develop an eclectic technique that is both sound and missional.
For more about presuppositional apologetics, look to Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, Francis Schaeffer, and Gordon Clark.
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Was Jesus’ Witness of Himself True or Not? https://carm.org/
Gundry and Cowan, eds. Five Views on Apologetics.
Guthrie & Moo. Hebrews and James. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary.
Horton, ed. The Portable Seminary: A Master’s Level Overview in One Volume.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Presupposition. http://plato.stanford.edu