Apologetics is that branch of theology that seeks to provide a reasoned defense of historic Christianity. Through the centuries, Christian thinkers have given consideration to different models or modes for defending the truth of the faith. Thus, today there exists a variety of methods for engaging in the apologetics enterprise: classical, evidential, cumulative case, new Reformed epistemology, and presuppositional.1 Here I’ll take a closer look at presuppositional apologetics, with a brief appeal to unity as I suggest that its proponents consider the strengths of other methods.
Reflections on Presuppositional Apologetics
I have studied presuppositional apologetics from reading and personally interacting with such scholars as Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and Vern Poythress. I appreciate all three of these men’s philosophical understanding and their deep commitment to the truth of Scripture and to Reformed theology. I respect that they endeavor to allow Scripture to guide their apologetics approach. I also appreciate their constant reminder that no one is neutral philosophically or spiritually and that everyone brings to the table critical presuppositions about truth, reality, and goodness. I also respect that these men are not mere armchair apologists—rather, these fine Christian thinkers engage unbelief through their writings and debates with the opponents of Christianity.
I thus value the presuppositional approach to apologetics and think that this school has important things to contribute to the broader Christian apologetics enterprise. But I’m also of the persuasion that all of the major methods of Christian apologetics approaches have far more in common than they have areas of differences. Thus, while I generally lean towards the cumulative case (or best explanation) approach to defending the faith, I remain somewhat eclectic and pragmatic when engaging in the apologetics sphere. And personally, I would rather engage in apologetics with non-Christians than debate how to do apologetics with other Christians.
I think one of the benefits of having a variety of apologetics strategies means that Christian thinkers from different schools can learn from one another. To my way of thinking, all apologetic methodologies have both strengths and challenges. So, while I value presuppositional apologetics, I offer a few points of friendly critical inquiry and questions of this school as I see it generally practiced today. I realize that presuppositionalism isn’t a monolith. I know there are different strands and different individuals who reflect different emphases (for example, Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark). Here are a few of my thoughts as I reflect on this distinctive approach to apologetics.
Apologetics Proclamation and Argument
I respectfully think the standard presuppositionalist apologetics presentation is usually high on proclamation and rhetoric but sometimes low in terms of actual apologetic argument. Kelly James Clark notes this criticism in Five Views on Apologetics and I think there is merit to it. Thoughtful nonbelievers are not going to roll over and just admit that without God there is no possibility of having a coherent, morally viable, and existentially livable worldview. Don’t get me wrong: I think most of our worldview competitors do indeed have severe problems in explaining life’s most meaningful realities, but to say that all non-Christian worldviews are logically deficient needs to be demonstrated, not just proclaimed. In terms of philosophy, enduring aspects of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Kantianism don’t strike me as absurd, and they do have unique elements that don’t appear to be merely borrowed from Christianity.
So I’d like to see my presuppositionalist friends, known for holding fast to the transcendental argument for God’s existence, develop extended arguments that actually show how various worldviews are incoherent. Today, Darwinian naturalism is a big competitor that tries to explain reason, morality, and meaning. Yet non-presuppositionalist apologists like C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and Victor Reppert have developed extended philosophical arguments showing the deep problems inherent in naturalism with regard to reason. I think it is possible that the transcendental argument for God’s existence (TAG: see definition below) could be aided by the work other Christian thinkers have done on the argument from reason.2 I’m told that presuppositionalist apologist Michael Butler has employed some of Plantinga’s arguments from an Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) to buttress the case for the transcendental argument. I appreciate that and would like to see more of this content sharing and cooperation among apologetics schools to make the arguments as robust as possible.
Philosophical Starting Point
I’ve heard both Bahnsen and Frame explain why presuppositionalism is not fallaciously circular in nature (presuming that which should be proved or supported) by beginning with the truth of the triune God revealed in Scripture, but other Christian philosophers raise reasonable questions about this starting point.3 I think rational intuition may, at times, begin with one’s conclusion and then work backward, but I would like to see more done to explain this starting position and show how it is different from other religious perspectives that make similar claims. For example, is it possible that Jews and Muslims could presume the truth of their faith based upon their claimed revelation from God? And could Judaism and Islam attempt to justify a transcendental argument from their revelatory perspective? I know Cornelius Van Til appeals to the concept of the one and the many to support the unique unity and diversity with the Trinity. I appreciate his intuition, but again, I would like to see this kind of discussion furthered—especially when it comes to these two important revelatory-based world religions.
Aiding the Transcendental Argument
Most presuppositionalists reject the traditional arguments for God’s existence (cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral) on the basis that they lack certainly true conclusions and they merely support a generally theistic deity. But I wonder if the transcendental argument itself is an actual proof for the God of Christian theism or whether it could better be understood as the best explanation for reality. So could an abductive best explanation approach to apologetics aid the transcendental argument?
The transcendental argument for the existence of God [TAG] is the argument which attempts to prove God’s existence by arguing that logic, morals, and science ultimately presuppose the Christian worldview and that God’s transcendent character is the source of logic and morals. The transcendental argument for the existence of God argues that without the existence of God it is impossible to prove anything because, in the atheistic world, you cannot justify or account for universal laws.4
A Time to Use Evidence
I have heard presuppositional apologists say that there is an appropriate time to use evidences for the Christian faith, such as support for the resurrection of Jesus. But in practice, I think this is seldom done. So could arguments from classical and evidential apologetics provide helpful elements to presuppositionalism? And, if so, when?
Young-Earth Creationism’s Role
Young-earth creationists seem to prefer (generally speaking) a presuppositional method to apologetics. But I suspect many of the presuppositionalists who are young-earth creationists can’t or won’t use all of the powerful scientific evidence that comes from modern cosmology (the big bang origin of the universe, fine-tuning, etc.) to support a biblical worldview. I know there are presuppositionalists who are old-earth creationists but I wonder why there is seemingly a close connection between presuppositional apologetics and young-earth creationism. Despite this connection, some have suggested that the proposed father of modern presuppositionalism, Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987), like some of his colleagues at Princeton, may have affirmed an old earth. (Though I’m not sure his view of the age of the earth can be known with certainty.)
To the degree that my comments about presuppositional apologetics reflect criticism, I wish to convey that they come from a friend. I hope those who embrace presuppositional apologetics can appreciate the contributions that the other apologetics schools add to the conversation. But I also hope those in the other schools can appreciate the unique features that I think presuppositionalism brings to the table as well.
As a Christian, I prize unity and thus like to emphasize those things that all believers in Christ affirm. I also like to think that even Christians who disagree with one another can find important matters where we can be allies.
Reflections: Your Turn
Is there a specific apologetics methodology that you find appealing? If so, which one and why?
- For a fair-minded and gracious book comparing and contrasting Christian apologetics methodology, see Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrated Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr.
- For books defending presuppositional apologetics, see Van Til’s Apologetic: Reading & Analysis by Greg L. Bahnsen, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction by John M. Frame, and Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith by K. Scott Oliphint.
- For a discussion of transcendental arguments, see John M. Frame, “Transcendental Arguments,” https://frame-poythress.org/transcendental-arguments/.
- Stephen B. Cowan ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
- See Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003).
- For Paul Copan’s critique of presuppositionalism, see https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/questioning-presuppositionalism/. For Scott Oliphint’s defense of presuppositionalism, see https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/answering-objections-to-presuppositionalism.
- “What Is the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God?,” Got Questions Ministries, accessed July 18, 2018, https://www.gotquestions.org/transcendental-argument.html.