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Presuppositional apologetics is a school of Christian apologetics, a field of Christian theology that attempts to (1) present a rational basis for the Christian faith, (2) defend the faith against objections, and (3) attack the alleged flaws of other worldviews. Presuppositional apologetics is especially concerned with the third aspect of this discipline, though it generally sees the trifold distinction as a difference in emphasis rather than as delineating three separate endeavors. Presuppositional apologetics developed in and is most commonly advocated within Reformed circles of Christianity.
The key discriminator of this school is that it maintains that the Christian apologist must assume the truth of the supernatural revelation contained in the Bible (that is, the Christian worldview) because there can be no set of neutral assumptions from which to reason with a non-Christian. In other words, presuppositionalists say that a Christian cannot consistently declare his belief in the necessary existence of the God of the Bible and simultaneously argue on the basis of a different set of assumptions (presumably those of the non-Christian) in which God may or may not exist.
By way of contrast, the other schools of Christian apologetics assume the world is intelligible apart from God and argue exclusively on (purportedly) neutral grounds to support trusting the Christian Scriptures. Specifically, Thomistic (also "Traditional" or "Classical") apologetics concentrates on the first aspect of apologetics with its logical proofs for the existence of God, while Evidentialist apologetics focuses especially on the first two aspects of the discipline by offering various archaeological, historical, and scientific evidences to support both the probable existence of God and the truth of the Bible and refute the major objections to the same.
History of presuppositional apologetics
The origins of presuppositional apologetics are in the work of Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who began to adopt a presuppositional approach to defending the truth of his faith as early as the late 1920s.1 Van Til personally disliked the term "presuppositional", as he felt it misrepresented his approach to apologetics, which he felt was focused primarily on the preeminence of the Bible as the criterion for truth. He did, however, accept the label reluctantly, given that it was a useful way of distinguishing between those who deny any neutral basis for apologetics and those who do not. His student, Greg Bahnsen, aided in some of the later developments of Van Tillian Presuppositionalism, and the Bahnsen Theological Seminary continues to promote presuppositional apologetics in its curriculum. John Frame, another student of Van Til's, also continues to defend his approach, although he is generally more critical of Van Tillian Presuppositionalism than Bahnsen was.2
By 1952, presuppositional apologetics had acquired a new advocate in the Presbyterian theologian Gordon Clark.3 He embraced the label "presuppositional" since his approach to apologetics, following his Platonic epistemology, was more closely concerned with the logical order of assumptions than was Van Til's. The differences between the two views on presuppositionalism, though few in number, caused a significant rift between the two men, and even after both Clark and Van Til had died, John Robbins (a theologian and former student of Clark's) and Bahnsen feuded often and publicly.4
As of 2005, presuppositional apologetics has established itself securely as a legitimate perspective on apologetics, although its appeal remains largely limited to Christians whose theology is Calvinist in origin. In a recent book outlining the major schools of apologetics, the presuppositional approach was given equal time alongside much older and well-established schools of thought (the "classical" and "evidential" noted above, for example).5 In general, Van Til's approach is far more popular and widespread than Clark's.
Varieties of presuppositionalism
Van Tillian presuppositionalism
Apologists who follow Van Til earned the label "presuppositional" because of their central tenet that the Christian must at all times presuppose (that is, assume from the beginning) the supernatural revelation of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth and error in order to know anything. Christians, they say, can assume nothing less because all meaning and coherence depends on the existence of the God of the Bible, and by accepting the assumptions of non-Christians, which deny the Trinitarian God of the Bible, one could not even formulate an intelligible argument.
According to Frame, "[Van Til's] major complaints against competing apologetic methods are theological complaints, that is, that they compromise the incomprehensibility of God, total depravity, the clarity of natural revelation, God's comprehensive control over creation, and so on."6 Within their presuppositionalist framework, Van Tillians do often utilize foundational concepts for Thomistic and Evidentialist arguments (belief in the uniformity of natural causes, for example), but they are unwilling to grant that such beliefs are justifiable on "natural" (neutral) grounds. Rather, Van Tillians employ these beliefs, which they justify on Biblical grounds, in the service of transcendental arguments, which are a sort of meta-argument about foundational principles in which the non-Christian's worldview is shown to be incoherent in and of itself and intelligible only because it borrows capital from the Christian worldview. Van Til summarized the transcendental method thusly: "(T)he only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn't prove anything." An example of this form of argumentation is found in the transcendental argument for the existence of God.
Van Tillians also stress the importance of reckoning with "the noetic effects of sin" (that is, the effects of sin on the mind), which, they maintain, corrupt man's ability to understand God, the world, and himself aright. In their view, as a fallen creature, man does know the truth in each of these areas, but he seeks to find a different interpretation -- one in which, as C. S. Lewis said, he is "on the bench" and God is "in the dock." The primary job of the apologist is, therefore, simply to confront the unbeliever with the fact that, while he is verbally denying the truth, he is nonetheless practically behaving in accord with it. (Van Til illustrated this alleged inconsistency as a child, elevated on the father's knee, reaching up to slap his face, and Bahnsen used the analogy of a man breathing out air to make the argument that air doesn't exist.)
Another important aspect of the Van Tillian apologetical program is the distinction between proof and persuasion. According to the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, man has ample proof in all of creation of God's existence and attributes but chooses to suppress it. Van Til likewise claimed that there are valid arguments to prove that the God of the Bible exists but that the unbeliever would not necessarily be persuaded by them because of his suppression of the truth, and therefore the apologist, he said, must present the truth regardless of whether anyone is actually persuaded by it. (Frame notes that the apologist is here akin to the psychiatrist who presents the truth about the paranoid's delusions, trusting that his patient knows the truth at some level and can accept it -- though Frame would say the action of God in the Holy Spirit is also required for the unbeliever to accept ultimate truths.) An implication of this position is that all proofs are "person relative" in the sense that one non-Christian might be persuaded by a particular argument and another might not be, depending on their background and experiences.
Clark and his followers treat the truth of the Scriptures as an axiom of their system, which cannot be proven or disproven. Rather it, like all axioms, must be tested for consistency within the worldview. This test for internal contradiction exemplifies Clark's strict reliance on the laws of logic (He famously translates the first verse of the Gospel of John as "In the beginning was the Logic, and the Logic was with God, and the Logic was God." By contrast, some Van Tillians have suggested that God might be "above the laws of logic" in some sense.). Thus, in order to invalidate non-Christian worldviews, one must simply show how a different presupposition results in necessary logical contradictions.
Clark admitted, however, that there could be more than one apparently coherent worldview and that one could not test all the implications of any worldview without omniscience. Nonetheless, he believed that this method was effective in many practical cases (when arguing against, for instance, secular humanism or dialectical materialism) and that, in the end, each of us must simply choose (that is, make an informed selection) from among seemingly consistent worldviews the one that most adequately answers life's questions and seems the most internally coherent. (Some Van Tillian critics suggest that the concept of coherence itself must be defined in terms of Christian presuppositions but is instead being used by Clark as a "neutral" principle for discerning the truth of any proposition.)
Using this approach, Clark labored to expose the contradictions of many worldviews that were in vogue in his day and to defend the Christian worldview by proving its consistency over against those who attacked it. His unflagging use of logic sometimes led him to what most Reformed theologians consider rather unorthodox ideas on such topics as the problem of evil -- topics which are most often treated by theologians as paradoxes or apparent contradictions not resolvable by human logic.
With regard to other schools of apologetics, Clark suggested that the cosmological argument was not just unpersuasive but also logically invalid (because it begged the question), and he similarly dismissed the other Thomistic arguments. As a staunch critic of empiricism, he did not tend to make much use of evidential arguments, which yield likelihoods and probabilities rather than logical certainties (that is, either coherence or incoherence).
The chief criticism of presuppositionalism is that it uses circular reasoning, which is generally considered a logical fallacy. Many opponents of presuppositional apologetics would characterize the presuppositional argument as resting on a belief in the Bible as the source of truth because it is inspired by God, in whom we can believe because the Bible affirms it and the Bible is the source of truth. While some logicians accept tautology as a legitimate form of argument, most find it impossible to counter, since each premise is only acceptable if the other premise is also found acceptable. This charge seeks to subsume presuppositionalism within fideism, which holds that belief in God cannot be justified by reason at all, but must be accepted or rejected wholly upon faith.
Van Tillians do not deny the charge of circularity. Rather, they insist that all worldviews are ultimately circular and cannot justify their foundational principle except by that principle itself. Therefore, while presuppositionalists agree that circularity makes for an invalid argument in some circumstances, in the case of ultimate presuppositions, they contend that there is no other option. So when considering worldviews, the concern must not be for vicious (or "small") circularity, but for internal coherence ("large circularity"). In other words, presuppositionalists believe that the question to be asked is not, "Do I begin with my ultimate presupposition?" but rather, "Do my beliefs and practices comport with my ultimate presupposition?"
If this reasoning is true, however, it means that all argumentation is ultimately circular. This assertion makes many critics question the line of reasoning proposed by presuppositional apologists. In allowing for the validity of circular arguments by calling all arguments circular, presuppositionalists seem to have denied the validity of all arguments.
Presuppositionalists insist that this circularity does not mean that the apologetical endeavor is reduced to a philosophical "standoff," where one simply chooses presuppositions by a voluntary act and then uncritically holds on to them despite all argument to the contrary.
Clarkians however emphasize that all philosophical systems start with axioms, which by definition are not capable of proof. Clarkians choose the propositions of Scripture as their axioms. Circular reasoning means trying to prove premises from their conclusions, while axioms are not there to be proved at all. Clarkians claim to deduce theorems from the axioms of Scripture.
Presuppositionalists posit that there is a logical necessity that attaches to a certain set of presuppositions (the ultimate of which being the existence of the God revealed in the Bible) and that one simply cannot reject that set of presuppositions without destroying the very foundations of knowledge, science, and ethics. That is to say, presuppositionalists argue that without the Christian-Theistic circle, human experience would be unintelligible, and the very objection to "circular reasoning" would be nothing more than a random, disconnected, and ultimately meaningless utterance, not in principle different from any other utterance. Like the man in Bahnsen's analogy who breathes out air to make the argument against the existence of air, by raising the "circular reasoning" objection the unbeliever is thereby demonstrating the truth of Christian Theism, according to presuppositionalists.
It should not be thought, however, that all presuppositionalists thus repudiate empirical or rational evidences in favor of this heavily philosophical argumentation about circularity. Van Tillians in particular utilize evidence from many other disciplines (physical sciences, archaeology, philosophy, etc.) -- as understood according to the Christian presuppositions -- to argue in "broader circles," seeking to demonstrate that all the universe, when understood correctly, plainly declares the wonders of the Creator. These arguments are no less circular in the end, but they are, it is claimed, significantly more persuasive because they bring in more supporting details.
- Oliphint, K. Scott (1991). "Cornelius Van Til and the Reformation of Christian Apologetics". Die Idee Van Reformasie: Gister En Vandag, ed. B. J. van der Walt.
- Fernandes, Phil (1997). "Cornelius Van Til", a chapter from his doctoral dissertation.
- Hoover, David P. (1984). Gordon Clark's Extraordinary View of Men and Things. ISBN 094478822X
- See, for instance, Bahnsen response to Robbins, Flood's response to Bahnsen, and Bahnsen's response to Flood - all from Journey magazine.
- Cowan, Steven B., et al. Five Views on Apologetics. ISBN 0310224764 (John Frame was selected by the book's editor to represent presuppositional apologetics.)
- Frame, John. Van Til: The Theologian. ISBN 091603402X
- Albrecht, Tom. What is Presuppositionalism? Retrieved on November 22, 2004.
- Van Til, Cornelius (1970). My Credo. Retrieved on November 22, 2004.
- Bahnsen, Greg (1998). Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. P & R Press. ISBN 0875520987
- Clark, Gordon (1998). A Christian View of Men and Things, 3rd edition. Trinity Foundation. ISBN 1891777017
- Clark, Gordon (1995). Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 3rd edition. Trinity Foundation. ISBN 0940931869
- Frame, John (1994). Apologetics to the Glory of God. P & R Press. ISBN 0875522432
- Frame, John (1995). Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. P & R Press. ISBN 0875522203
- Van Til, Cornelius (1980). The Defense of the Faith. P & R Press. ISBN 0875524834
- VanTil.info - writings by and about Van Til and his apologetic.
- The Trinity Foundation - the shorter writings and audio of Gordon Clark and his disciples for free as well as printed books and audio for a fee.
- Reformed Perspectives' Apologetics - a number of papers and books by John Frame.
- The Hall of Frame - papers by students of John Frame as well as material for Frame's courses at Reformed Theological Seminary.
- The Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics - many articles and books about the presuppositional approach to apologetics.
- Covenant Media Foundation which offers a variety of audio resources related to presuppositional apologetics by Greg Bahnsen, Douglas Wilson, and some by Van Til himself.
Debates utilizing a presuppositional approach
- "The Great Debate: Does God Exist?" Audio (in RealAudio format) of a formal debate between Christian Greg Bahnsen and skeptic Gordon Stein from the University of California, Irvine.
- The Martin-Frame Debate A written debate between skeptic Michael Martin and Christian John Frame about the transcendental argument for the existence of God.
- The Drange-Wilson Debate A written debate between skeptic Theodore Drange and Christian Douglas Wilson.
- "Is Non-Christian Thought Futile?" A written debate between Christian Doug Jones and skeptics Keith Parsons and Michael Martin in Antithesis magazine (vol. 2, no. 4).
Debates and discussions on apologetic method
- "Presuppositional or Evidential Apologetics?" An audio debate in MP3 format between Gordon Clark (who speaks first) and David Hoover. (Warning: 25 MB download; no streaming available.)
- "Van Til and the Ligonier Apologetic" An article by John Frame from the Westminster Theological Journal analyzing the book Classical Apologetics by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley (ISBN 0310449510), which itself includes "a friendly refutation of Cornelius Van Til's presuppositional apologetics."
- "A Critique of the Evidentialist Apologetical Method of John Warwick Montgomery" An article by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.
- "The Resurrection of Thomism" An article by Doug Erlandson critiquing Thomistic apologetics.
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