Apologetics is the defense of the Christian Faith. According to 1 Peter 3:15, when unbelievers ask a Christian to give an explanation for why he or she believes in Christ, the Christian should be ready to give a rational defense of the Christian worldview. The Greek word translated as “defense” or “answer” in this verse is ‘apologia,’ which is where we get the term apologetics. However, Christians often disagree on what is the best way of defending the faith. Consequently, there are several different methods of apologetics. These include classical, evidential, cumulative case, and finally, presuppositional. Furthermore, some Christians have a more eclectic approach in which they feel that each of these might be appropriate for a given situation.
Of these different methods, the presuppositional method is perhaps the least understood. Indeed, well-intentioned Christians who promote one or more of the other methods often inadvertently misrepresent the presuppositional method when arguing against it. And this is a shame because the presuppositional apologetic method is a very powerful demonstration of the truth of Christianity. But exactly what is presuppositional apologetics and how is it distinguished from the other methods?
The Key Criteria
Perhaps the most important distinguishing feature of the presuppositional apologetic is summarized in two words: biblical authority. The presuppositionalist accepts the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, and hence the ultimate, authoritative, unquestionable standard by which all truth claims are evaluated. This does not mean that the Bible is exhaustive in its truth claims; there is truth to be found outside of Scripture of course. But anything that is true must be consistent with the Bible, and cannot contradict it. Nor does it mean that there are not secondary standards by which certain truth claims can be tested. What it does mean is that any secondary standard must be consistent with the Bible in order to be reasonable, and any claim that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture is necessarily false. The Bible gives us the foundational truths necessary for us to discover other truths.
Hence, the Bible is the ultimate standard of truth on any matter on which it touches. Even this foundational feature is often misrepresented by critics; some might say that the presuppositionalist does not use external evidence in his defense of Scripture. But this is demonstrably false. The presuppositionalist may indeed use evidence from science, history, and so on. Some might claim that the presuppositionalist does not use other standards, such as laws of logic or sensory experience in his defense of the Faith. This too is false. The presuppositionalist certainly accepts the legitimate use of logic and sensory experience; however, the presuppositionlist recognizes these standards as secondary and affirms that they are only legitimate because the Bible’s claims are true.
Of course, some classical and evidential apologists would agree that the Bible is the ultimate standard for testing almost all truth claims. But they will inevitably make at least one exception: the truth claim that the Bible is the ultimate standard for testing all truth claims. “After all,” he says, “the Bible cannot prove itself. That would be circular. Therefore, we must appeal to some other standard by which to evaluate the truthfulness of the Bible – at least when defending the faith to unbelievers.” Another version of this is, “unbelievers do not accept the Bible as true. So obviously, we cannot assume that it is true as part of our argument.” On the surface, such objections seem very reasonable and are perhaps the main reason why many Christians shy away from the presuppositional method.
However, such objections do not stand up to scrutiny. If the Bible indeed is the ultimate standard for all truth claims, then this necessarily includes the truth claim that “the Bible is the ultimate standard for all truth claims.” If the Bible is not the ultimate standard for itself, then it is not the ultimate standard for all truth claims since there is at least one exception. And if there is one exception, there may be others. Hence, to attempt to demonstrate that the Bible is the ultimate standard by appealing to some allegedly greater standard, is inherently irrational. For if there is some greater standard by which the Bible can be proved, then it is not the ultimate standard.
Consequently, some classical and evidential apologists simply reject the claim that the Bible is the ultimate standard. Instead, they would appeal to some other allegedly more certain standard, such as laws of logic, or sensory experience. Such people therefore appeal to these other standards as the basis for coming to the conclusion that the Bible is (or at least is very probably) true. The unbeliever is invited to evaluate the claims of Scripture in light of these allegedly greater standards, and hopefully come to the sensible conclusion that the Bible is true.
As another possibility, some Christians recognize that the Bible truly is the ultimate standard for testing all truth claims, including itself. But since unbelievers do not acknowledge this, these Christians would argue that we should essentially pretend that the Bible is not the ultimate standard for the sake of persuading the unbeliever. They say that we should accept the standards of the unbeliever, and demonstrate that the Bible is true using these standards. Only after the unbeliever comes to believe that the Bible is true do we then reveal that the Bible is truly the ultimate standard, and not these other methods. Although this attempt may be well-meaning, is it really honest? We are effectively saying to the unbeliever, “Yes, your standards are sufficient for judging the Bible. And if you apply your standards properly, you will see that the Bible is true.” Yet at the same time, the Christian knows that the unbeliever’s standards are secondary (or even wrong) compared to the Bible, and are therefore not truly in a position to judge God’s Word.
In essence, all the non-presuppositional apologetic methods place man upon the throne. They invite the unbeliever to be the judge and to use his non-biblical standard to evaluate the truthfulness of the Bible with the apologist acting as God’s defense attorney. In some cases, the apologist might genuinely believe that the unbeliever’s standards (logic, sensory experience, history, science) are superior to God’s Word, and hence in a position to evaluate it. In others, the apologist knows better, but goes along with the unbeliever’s false view that he is in a position to judge God’s Word.
The presuppositional approach should be understood as worldview analysis. A worldview consists of a person’s most basic beliefs about reality. These basic beliefs are called presuppositions because they are assumed to be true in advance of being tested. The basic reliability of sensory experience is a presupposition. People generally assume that what they see, hear, taste, touch, or smell really does have something to do with the actual universe. This is assumed to be true in advance of any sort of scientific testing. If a scientist decides to investigate the chemical composition of a rock, he must first assume that the rock really does exist on the basis that he can see it and touch it. He has presupposed that his senses are basically reliable as a necessary prerequisite to learning anything else about the rock by any sort of scientific analysis.
A worldview is a network of presuppositions, untested by the natural sciences, and in light of which all experience is interpreted. All people have a worldview. They have a network of beliefs by which they attempt to understand what any evidence implies. But relatively few people have consciously reflected on what their own worldview is. Hence, their worldview operates on a subconscious level, automatically interpreting any evidence obtained by sensory experience or rational reflection.
Since different people have different worldviews (sometimes very different, sometimes only slightly different), they will often come to different conclusions when presented with identical evidence. Hence, a creationist looking at a fossil might conclude that it formed several thousand years ago during the global flood. An evolutionist looking at exactly the same fossil might conclude that it formed millions of years ago in a local flood. Both people are looking at the same evidence. But since they have different worldviews, they draw very different conclusions. This is the nature of a worldview.
Many people have the impression that worldviews are produced by correctly interpreting evidence. In other words, we make lots of observations, rationally reflect on them, and form a worldview based on properly understanding the evidence. In reality, the reverse is true. Our worldview tells us how to properly understand the evidence. Our worldview is not based on correctly understanding the evidence; rather our correct (or incorrect) understanding of the evidence is based on our worldview.
Consider the atheist. He professes that God does not exist; that’s his stated worldview. He presupposes that everything that happens occurs as a result of natural laws with no supernatural mind behind anything. What evidence would convince him to change his mind? Some people think that a miracle would convince the atheist. But since the atheist accepts as a presupposition that God does not exist, no miracle will convince him otherwise. Instead, he will suppose that any so-called miracle is actually the result of natural laws – perhaps laws that are as yet undiscovered. “After all,” he says, “there could be some natural explanation. We just don’t know what it is at this time.”
The resurrection of Jesus is spectacular evidence demonstrating that He is the Lord God Almighty. You might think that this evidence should convince everyone of the veracity of the Bible. But in fact, the Bible itself teaches that this is not the case. There were people who saw the resurrected Christ and yet still doubted (Matthew 28:17)! Indeed, Jesus Himself said that if people do not accept the words of Scripture (Moses and the prophets), then “they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”
Jesus understood the nature of worldviews. He understood that even the most spectacular evidence will not convince someone who has a false worldview. How then do we settle the debate? When two people have differing worldviews, how do we decide which one, if either, is correct? It cannot be as simple as presenting evidence, because each side will interpret the evidence in light of his worldview. How do we rationally demonstrate that the Christian worldview is the correct one in light of which all evidence should be interpreted? How a person answers that question will reveal his apologetic methodology.
Demonstrating the Truth of the Bible
The classical apologist will appeal to logic, reason, and causality to demonstrate that (a) God exists. He will then, along with the evidentialist, proceed to present evidence showing that the Bible is true, perhaps appealing to miracles, predictive prophecy, archeological finds, and probabilistic considerations. However, an astute critic of Christianity will interpret all those lines of evidence in light of his presupposition that the Bible is not true. His worldview will allow him to come up with possible explanations for every line of evidence presented by the apologist. A committed critic will not be persuaded by evidential, classical, or cumulative-case apologetics because his worldview has not been challenged. He has not been presented with a rational argument that would require him to abandon his worldview. He has not been given an actual reason to change his position.
This is where presuppositional apologetics shines. The presuppositionalist does not merely present evidence for the unbeliever to evaluate on his own unbelieving terms. Rather, the presuppositionalist challenges the unbeliever’s worldview, showing its internal inconsistency, arbitrariness, and its failure to make sense of knowledge. The presuppositionalist demonstrates that the unbeliever’s worldview is inherently defective and irrational, by an internal critique. After debunking the unbeliever’s worldview, the Christian shows how the biblical worldview succeeds where the unbeliever’s worldview fails. Namely, the biblical worldview can make rational sense of all those things the unbeliever takes for granted: logical reasoning, reliable senses, objective morality, and so on. The unbeliever now has a choice to make: he can either accept Christianity as true, or he can be irrational.
Because of the sin-nature, people would actually prefer to be irrational than to be Christian. They would prefer to live in intellectual darkness and chaos than to bow the knee to Christ (Romans 1:18-22). Consequently, even though the presuppositionalist has debunked the critic’s worldview and conclusively demonstrated the truth of Christianity, the unbeliever needs the help of the Holy Spirit in order to accept what has been rationally demonstrated. The Holy Spirit helps men to be rational, to accept truth, to overcome our sinful propensity to prefer a lie.
Most apologists, regardless of their methodology, would accept the fact that the Holy Spirit is necessary to grant the unbeliever genuine, saving faith regardless of how good (or bad) our argument is. 1 Corinthians 12:3 teaches that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” So, why insist on a presuppositional argument if it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately persuades and not the argument itself? There are two reasons.
First, the presuppositional argument actually demonstrates the truth of the Christian worldview and reveals the absurdity of any competitor. It exposes the unbeliever’s suppressed knowledge of God and shows that he is logically and morally obligated to repent and receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Granted, the unbeliever may choose to be irrational due to his preference for sin. The Holy Spirit is needed to enable the unbeliever to be rational: to accept what has been logically proved.
Alternative apologetic methods may present very good lines of evidence that are consistent with the Christian worldview. However, since they tacitly allow the unbeliever to judge the evidence by his own unbiblical standards, they fail to provide a rational reason why the unbeliever must abandon his standards in favor of the Christian worldview. Instead, the unbeliever usually just interprets whatever evidence is presented in light of his pre-existing beliefs. The Holy Spirit may sometimes bring persuasion anyway; but He will do so despite the fact that the Christian position has not been logically demonstrated.
Second, the way in which we argue for the truth of the Christian worldview must itself be truthful and consistent with the Christian worldview. It is deceptive to imply to an unbeliever that his unbiblical standards (whatever they may be) are superior to (and hence in a position to judge the veracity of) God’s Word. The unbeliever likes to think that His worldview is the standard by which he can judge the Bible to be true or false. Non-presuppositional methods tacitly endorse the unbeliever’s attitude rather than refuting it from the start.
God can use a bent stick to draw a straight line. He may use a faulty apologetic method or bad argument to win people to Himself. The Holy Spirit can persuade people to believe despite an argument that pretends that the unbeliever’s mind is sufficient to judge God’s inerrant Word, even though in reality God’s Word will judge the unbeliever’s mind. But this is to our shame if we have implied (either directly or by omission) that the unbeliever’s unbiblical standards are sufficient to judge God. They are not. To the extent that an unbeliever has any correct standards at all, those standards are based on God as revealed in Scripture. So, I do accept that laws of logic are a good tool to judge the veracity of certain truth claims, because laws of logic are biblical; they reflect the way God thinks and hence the way we must think.
It is not only immoral to judge God, it is irrational. Think about it: what standard would you use to judge God? A fallible standard is obviously insufficient to judge the infallible God. Yet, any correct standard would have to be based on God’s revelation in order to be correct. Anyone who attempts to show that God doesn’t measure up must first borrow His ruler. And God will always measure up to His own infallible standard.