July 15, 2012 § 12 Comments
Long before I understood that there were distinctions in the approaches to apologetics defined by ridiculously long words, I always thought the best approach was what is known as presuppositionalism. At least I found presuppositionalism more comfortable than evidentialism. But now I’m pretty certain that while there are differences in the way people argue for Christianity, the difference is in the method, not the thinking behind it.
DEFINING THE -ISMS
First, let’s define the two approaches:
Presuppositional apologetics pre-supposes the existence of God and the truth of Scripture as the only rational basis for making sense of the universe. Presuppositionalism starts with the fundamentals of Christianity and works from there to expose the flaws in secular world views and justify Christianity. Well-known advocates of this approach include Reformed apologists C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and most notably, Cornelius Van Til.
Evidential (or “classical”) apologetics starts with the factual evidence that believers and non-believers can agree on. Evidentialism seeks to come to theistic conclusions from the starting point of what we can observe about the universe. Prominent evidentialists include Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig.
I am pro-pressupositionalism (to make a ridiculously long term longer) for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that I can’t help but presuppose certain things in defending Christianity. I guess I presuppose presuppositionalism. The reason I don’t think there is much of a difference between the way people think about presuppositionalism or evidentialism is because presuppositionalists use evidence too, and evidentialists also have presuppositions. In fact, everyone presupposes certain basic beliefs. Cognitively, the two camps are both bound to basic and elementary assumptions when talking about God.
What are the basic and elementary assumptions we start with? In transcendental arguments, these are the things known as preconditions of intelligibility, the stuff we need to think and reason and argue and do science in the first place. They include the laws of logic (if A then B), uniformity in nature (water always freezes at 32 degrees F), moral sensibilities (certain things are right and wrong), basic reliability of our senses (we can generally trust our observation), and some expand the list to math, music and other phenomenon. These are first principals that we can’t explain or prove by anything greater or more foundational, but we all take them for granted. We call them “self-evident” and accept them without question. By what we see in Scripture about the nature and character of God, however, Christianity provides a basis for these things.
So presuppositionalists and evidentialists basically think the same way as every other human being. The differences may show up in the way a person forms an argument. The evidentialist may argue for a divine Creator, pointing to complexity of life as evidence (everyone agrees that life is complex) and get pretty far. But in Christian apologetics, ultimately, we are talking about ultimate origins. Eventually, anyone basing an argument for God on empirical evidence will run out of ladder before they reach Him. If what Christians presuppose is left out of the argument, we are relying on ourselves to make any headway. Does it really make sense to argue for something (God) that isn’t the basis of the argument? The presuppositionalist approach starts with and vocalizes up front what we can’t prove about God and the Bible and shows that it alone makes sense of the world, while competing worldviews, who do not presuppose God and the truth of Scripture, fail to explain it.
Circular reasoning has often been seen as the bane of presuppositional apologetics. The fact is that presupposing the truth of Christianity in arguing for Christianity is circular—or begging the question. In most arguments this is considered a logical fallacy, and rightly so. But in arguments about ultimate cause, ultimate authority, ultimate moral principals—anything ultimate—circular reasoning is necessary. After all, what we happen to be claiming is that there is an ultimate Being. In such a case, there can be no more ultimate Being that can serve to support the proposition. If there were, we would not be arguing for an ultimate Being, but something less. The only fault with most circular arguments is that there exists more fundamental principals to appeal to, and the one making the argument fails to avail himself to them.
The truth is that EVERYONE ultimately uses circular reasoning, and that’s true because we all presuppose the same basic principals that relate to reasoning. Without God in the equation, what does an atheist use to defend reason? He reasons by virtue of reason. This is circular, and flawed because he fails to see anything bigger to appeal to. Christians can appeal to the Source of reason. But the atheist is appealing to the most ultimate thing he is willing to recognize, presupposing the reality of the laws of logic and reason at the base of everything. But he is in essence unknowingly “borrowing capital” from Christianity. The laws of logic state that conclusions should follow from the premises. But isn’t the premise that conclusions should follow from the premises assumed? Why does everyone assume this? Is it because we observe that conclusions always seem to follow from the premises? If so, why do we assume this will always be true? Because the Biblical God exists. Because we’re made in the image of a logically consistent God who does not change (Numbers 23:19) and who laid the foundation for uniformity in nature (Genesis 8:22), people can’t reason otherwise.
While a certain amount of circular reasoning is unavoidable, the avoidable and logically flawed type of circular reasoning is the kind that uses relatively small circles. When we start with presupposing the ultimate Cause and Creator as presented in the Bible—the biggest, outermost circle—we can make sense of everything else within it. Ultimately, we cannot empirically prove God. Blaise Pascal sums up the requirement to begin with faith, and the ultimate requirement of it:
“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
The word of God that we presuppose as Christians is, fittingly, full of exhortation to think and live with presuppositions, trusting first by faith in the fundamentals of Christianity. Proverbs 9:10 and 111:10 tells us that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When our starting point is worship of our Creator, a correct understanding of His creation will follow. The writer of Hebrews explains that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” (11:6).
The Gospel is central. Presuppositionalism seemed to be the mode of choice for Paul in presenting the Gospel to the Athenians (Acts 17) and his reminder to the Corinthians: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3ff). It’s no accident that 1 Peter 3:15, the banner of many apologists, puts UP FRONT what believers should presuppose: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Faith in Christ is not just prerequisite for salvation, but it should guide our thoughts and voice when we “give an answer.” Dr. Greg Bahnsen writes:
If we are to “cast down reasonings and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God,” said Paul, then we must “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5.) An ultimate commitment to Christ covers the entire range of human activity, including every aspect of intellectual endeavor. To reason in a way which does not recognize this is to transgress the first and great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with… all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). In light of this, our thoughts about apologetic method should be controlled by the word of Jesus Christ, not merely our apologetic conclusions. (Van Til’s Presuppositionalism by Dr. Greg Bahnsen http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/PA195.htm)
THE END, FROM THE BEGINNING
Maybe one keen advantage of presuppositionalism is that it points that out the fact that no matter how we defend our faith, we are presupposing the same basic principals. It’s honest. It isn’t Fideism—blind faith that sets aside reason. It incorporates reason into a framework that starts and ends with the authority of God, the biggest circular argument that actually makes sense of all the little circles.