In this study we will examine the distinctiveness of the presuppositional approach to apologetics. The intent is not necessarily to defend the presuppositional method, though it is my perspective, but to define and illustrate the conceptual ideas under girding it.
Apologetics refers to the branch of theology dealing with the defense and proof of Christianity. Apologetics has nothing to do with “apologizing” for one’s faith; on the contrary, it involves obeying the command to be “always ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15). Although the word apologetics (Greek word – apologetikos) does not appear in the New Testament, it does use the vocabulary of apologetics, which is derived from the Greek legal system. In Greek law an accusation was lodged against a person, who then attempted to vindicate himself with a reply, an answer, a defense (Greek word – apologia). If a person had no defense against the accusation, he was called anapologetos, “without excuse,” a term used by Paul in Romans 1:20; 2:1.
The two basic approaches to apologetics are evidential and presuppositional. The evidential approach (also referred to as the classical or analytical) is primarily concerned with presenting “evidence”, both historic and philosophic, to support the assertions of the Christian faith. We find this methodology used by Josh McDowell in his book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This method was used by the Princeton theologians, namely Benjamin Warfield, Charles Hodge, and A.A. Hodge. Proponents of this view refer to it as “a rational defense of the Christian faith.” In dealing with the non-believer the evidential apologist appeals to him on the basis of human reasoning, attempting to show the “reasonableness” of Christianity. He would acknowledge that Christianity is a faith, to be sure; but there are reasons for this faith. Faith is not to be confused with reason; but neither is it to be separated from it.
The presuppositional approach is primarily concerned with the underlying “presuppositions” governing man’s ability to reason, due to his fallen nature. The presuppositionalist would maintain that the non-believer must filter all evidence through his “depraved mind,” resulting in the truth being suppressed (Rom. 1:18-21). This method contends that “the mind justifies what the heart has chosen.” The chief proponent of this apologetical approach in the 20th century was Cornelius Van Til. It was also the view of the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper. Others who take this approach are Gary North, R.J. Rushdoony, John Frame, Vern Poythress, and the late Greg Bahnsen.
In his book, The Defense of the Faith, Cornelius Van Til stated:
“This is, in the last analysis, the question as to what are one’s ultimate presuppositions. When man became a sinner he made of himself instead of God the ultimate or final reference point. And it is precisely this presupposition, as it controls without exception all forms of non-Christian philosophy, that must be brought into question. If this presupposition is left unquestioned in any field all the facts and arguments presented to the unbeliever will be made over by him according to his pattern. The sinner has cemented colored glasses to his eyes which he cannot remove. And all is yellow to the jaundiced eye. There can be no intelligible reasoning unless those who reason together understand what they mean by their words.”
To demonstrate the distinctiveness of the two apologetical approaches we can look at the debate which occurred between the Princeton and the Dutch theologians regarding scientific evidence. The Princeton view being basically described as, “facts are facts.” They stated that if two people, one a Christian and the other a non-Christian, fairly examine the same scientific evidence, they must come to the same conclusions. The Dutch theologians rejected that view on the basis of the Christian and the non-Christian, beginning with two different presuppositions. The evidence is interpreted through the “grid” of their presuppositions.
The presuppositionalist would address the underlying basis on which the non-Christian draws his conclusions. His wrong conclusions are a result of wrong presuppositions. The presuppositionalist views the non-Christian and his reasoning ability in the following way.
If I believe in the God of the Bible and the inerrancy of Scripture, I will interpret all evidence in light of that presupposition. On the other hand, if I reject the God of the Bible and the truthfulness of the Scriptures, I will interpret the evidence on the basis of my unbelief.
If, in buttoning up my shirt, I put the first button in the wrong hole, all the other buttons will be in the wrong holes. So it is with the unbeliever, he has the first “button” in the wrong hole. As a result he is unable to properly align his worldview with the reality of God, which is, according to the Scriptures, evident within him (Rom. 1:18-21).
The non-believer is not capable of proper reasoning. Their mind, as well as the rest of their being, is fallen and corrupt. Their mind is set on the flesh and therefore hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7). They have exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). Their foolish heart is darkened (Rom. 1:21). The Scripture declares them to be fools (Rom. 1:22). We are told in I Corinthians 2:14 that: “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” When the Holy Spirit regenerates sinners, their eyes are opened and they can grasp the truth of God’s revelation. Until then they are dead in their trespasses and sins, and their minds and understanding are darkened (Ephes. 2:1-7).
The concern that the advocates of presuppositional apologetics have regarding the evidentialist approach involves the need to find “common ground” with the non-Christian. This means the Christian must step over to the “ground” of the non-believer in his attempt to convince them, through rational arguments, of the claims of Christianity. He must engage in reasoning with a person incapable of sound reasoning. Proverbs says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:4-5). In other words, don’t engage yourself with the fool in his folly and be like him, but show to the fool the folly of his ways (the irrationality of his thinking as a result of rejecting the revelation of God).
The presuppositionalist approach is not to “reason” with the non-believer, but to “attack” the presuppositions that the non-believer is arguing from. He will not allow the non-believer to reason from his ungodly presuppositions. The Christian has no “common ground” on which to reason with the unbeliever, because they are proceeding out of two distinctly different presuppositional frameworks.
The presuppositionalist does not step over to the “ground” of the non-believer, but instead calls the non-believer over to his “ground.” This is why preaching must accompany defending the faith. He begins his defense with what he is defending – the facts of Christianity as Scripture says they are to be interpreted. He does not want to end up defending what the non-believer thinks of God instead of what God has revealed about Himself. Secondly, he must show plainly where the non-believer is wrong in order for God to accomplish His work. For the truth of God is evident within the non-believer; but through his ungodliness and sinful nature, the truth is suppressed (Rom. 1:18-21). Therefore, the non-believer, blinded by sin, will not accept the truth of God. Nevertheless, the Scriptures declare that only in preaching man’s fallen nature and its results, both spiritual and philosophical, in light of the Biblical system can God take away the non-believer’s blindness (Rom. 10:14-15).
The presuppositionalist does not believe the advocates of the evidential approach adequately take into account the extent of sin affecting the human mind. Too much is granted to the unbeliever regarding his ability to reason and arrive at the right conclusions. They also believe that evidential apologetics grants great autonomy to sinful man. It says to the unbeliever, “You are free to stand as judge and jury over God and the Bible. If you hear all the evidence and if it meets your covenant-breaking, rebellious criteria, you are free to accept it. Of course on the other hand, if it does not meet your standard, you are free to reject it.” Does Man judge God and His Word, or does God and His Word judge Man?