What is Presuppositional Apologetics?

By Todd Clay / June 3, 2018

Presuppositional apologetics defined, justified, and exploring the five major planks of the presuppositional platform.

Short Answer

Presuppositional apologetics is an approach to Christian apologetics which aims to expose the faulty foundations of unbelieving thought and argues the Biblical worldview alone makes human experience intelligible.

Long Answer

Presuppositional apologetics is a branch of Christian apologetics. Apologetics is concerned with the defense of the Christian faith. Often contrasted with the classical approach or the evidential approach, presuppositional apologetics has traditionally been associated with Reformed theology.

Also called “presuppositionalism”, presuppositional apologetics stands in stark contrast to the other more popular brands of Christian apologetics. Because of it’s somewhat obscure label, many of its proponents have balked at the name instead preferring terms like “Biblical epistemology” or more recently “Covenantal Apologetics”. But most still refer to it as presuppositionalism so I’ve stayed with it’s traditional moniker.

In this post, I aim to define presuppositional apologetics and explore the five planks of the presuppositional platform.

Presuppositional Apologetics Defined

Presuppositional apologetics aims to expose the faulty foundations of all unbelieving thought and argues the Biblical worldview alone makes human experience intelligible.

GotQuestions.org defines it like so:

“Presuppositional apologetics is an approach to apologetics which aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith and defend it against objections by exposing the logical flaws of other worldviews and hence demonstrating that biblical theism is the only worldview which can make consistent sense of reality.”

Here’s how it works: instead of assuming the often-hidden unbelieving assumptions of non-Christians, presuppositionalism attempts to uncover those ideas (presuppositions), dismantle them, and replace them with believing assumptions based on the Word Of God.

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Presuppositional Apologetics Justified

The goal of presuppositionalism is lofty. To attempt to undermine every non-Christian perspective is a tall order which begs the question whether God would even suggest we take on such a task. Theologian and Presppositionalist John Frame provides the rationale for the presuppositional approach to apologetics:

“In defending the Christian faith, the most important question before us is “What sort of defense will best glorify our God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31)?” God forbid that in seeking to defend the faith before others we should in that very act compromise it…

…Among all the sources of divine revelation (including nature, history, human beings in God’s image), Scripture plays a central role…(and) is the supremely authoritative, inerrant Word of God, the divinely authored, written constitution of the church of Jesus Christ. Scripture is therefore the foundational authority for all of human life including apologetics. As the ultimate authority, the very Word of God, it provides the foundational justifications for all our reasoning, without itself being subject to prior justification.”

In his justification for presuppositionalism, Frame does two things. First he asserts the presuppositional approach as the one that most glorifies God. To Frame, presuppositional apologetics brings the most glory to God because it exalts God’s word more than other approaches. Second, Frame explains how the Bible must be assumed to be true before any other source of knowledge. By doing this, he suggests the Bible is the foundational source of reliable knowledge in this world. These are two core tenets of presuppositional apologetics.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Five Major Planks of Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics is a mix of theological and philosophical principles. On the theology side, it seems to be more dependent on the Bible’s authority than other apologetic schools. Second, presupposionalism is influenced by epistemology or the study of how we know things. These are the five major planks of the presuppositional platform.

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Plank #1: All Truth-Pursuits Require Presuppositions

Nobody thinks in a vacuum. Whenever you attempt to discover truth, you necessarily hold onto certain principles. Kenneth J. Gentry, Jr. illustrates this from the perspective of scientific pursuits at cmfnow.com

“Physicist Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 work entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, noted that scientists must work from certain preconceived ideas, certain presupposed concepts about things in order to begin formulating their theories and performing their experiments. That presuppositions are always silently at work is evident in that the scientist when dealing with a particular problem selects only a few basic facts to consider while rejecting or overlooking numerous other facts. They perform certain types of experiments while neglecting others, And they do this in keeping with their presuppositions.”

In other words, Gentry argues whenever a scientist tries to discover certain things, she consciously or unconsciously believes in certain principles like the causality, repeatability of an experiment, and so on. The same is true for the philosopher, the test engineer, or police detective. In each discipline, the pursuer of truth believes certain pre-beliefs before they begin any investigation. Philosophers call these assumptions “axioms”. We call them presuppositions.

Plank #2: God’s Word is the Foundation for All Knowledge

The Christian’s primary duty is to love the Lord and by implication submit to his Lordship (Matthew 22:37). The primary way we know the Lord’s will is through his word, the Bible. Any deviation from that path, however slight, is a deviation from the Lordship of Christ. So God is the foundation for all knowledge and his word is how we know him. In addition, the Bible is true in all that affirms, denies, and implies. It is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.

Plank #3: “Neutrality” is Wrong

Jesus said, “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). To take a “neutral” stance on any issue to to forsake the foundation of all knowledge, namely God. We must hold to the truth of God’s word and not attempt to find common epistemological ground with unbelievers. The main reason is it would be a violation of God’s expectations of us. And secondly, it’s not even possible. So-called “neutrality” work doesn’t work for the Christian or for the non-Christian. We are all committed to one side or the other.

Plank #4: Unbelieving, Autonomous Thought is Flawed

Paul instructs us, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) Truth is found in Christ and his Word. Because of that, the unbeliever cannot adequately account for truth. In his unbelief, he attempts to create a worldview apart from God or autonomously. All of these non-Christian epistemological attempts fail, because without God there is no sufficient justification for truth.

Plank #5: Only The Christian Can Understand Reality Properly

When someone becomes a Christian, they are “born again” (John 3:3). With their new nature, their mind is renewed and able to think differently from non-Christians. The Apostle wrote about this new-found epistemological base when he said “Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). The unbeliever knows something is wrong with his worldview, but only the Biblically-informed Christian can correctly diagnose the problem. And only the Biblically-informed Christian can properly understand reality as God has constructed it.

Here’s a brief video (14:58) on how Greg Bahnsen practiced presuppositional apologetics:

In Conclusion: A Personal Plug For Presuppositionalism

Finally, I’d like to insert a personal plug for the presuppositional methodology in Christian apologetics.

In my first semester of college in 1994, my Bible study leader was writing his master’s thesis on a major proponent of presuppositionalism, Cornelius Van Til. So I was introduced to it over 20 years ago. Since then I have learned more about it from several teachers including Greg Bahnsen, K. Scott Oliphint, and John Frame.

Though I am a convinced presuppositionalist, I understand there is some value in other approaches to apologetics and evangelism. In addition, I have never heard another presuppositionalist find no value in a different approach to apologetics. However, I have heard many critiques of how the evidentialist school tends to diminish the authority of God’s word when talking to non-believers. That is a problem. We should never devalue God’s word in our attempts to persuade others about Christianity.

Admittedly, learning presuppositionalism can be a slog. I still don’t understand everything about it – like other areas of theology I am still learning.  But I am convinced the basic principles are both Biblical and true. In addition, these principles are some of the best rational defeaters of other false worldviews. If you don’t believe me, do the work, and learn them. Then try them yourself with an unbeliever.

“No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD.” (Proverbs 21:30)

Todd Clay is a husband, dad, and a Christian (Reformed Baptist). Todd holds a BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and an MA in Theological Studies from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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