The Effectiveness of Presuppositional Apologetics (Part 1)

If you get very far into apologetics (arguments for the truth of Christianity) you’ll discover there are, generally speaking, two different schools of argument – evidential and presuppositional.

Some claim that presuppositional arguments are the most effective, and indeed, only legitimate method to defend Christianity. I disagree; I believe we need both.

The 50,000 Foot View

Let’s begin with a brief overview of apologetics and then the two forms of argumentation. Apologetics really has two purposes:

To Defend Our Faith

…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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16)

When challenged by enemies of the Gospel, we as Christians are called to stand ready to offer a reasoned defense for our hope of salvation. This is one way we honor Christ: by giving a gentle, respectful reason for our faith, in such a way that our behavior is beyond reproach.

To Convince Listeners

When they [the Jews in Rome] had appointed a day for him [Paul], they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. (Acts 28:23-24, brackets mine)

The same reasoned arguments we use to explain our hope of salvation can be turned to persuading others of the same truths we believe. Paul was a master of both reasoning and the Scriptures, and used both to persuade both Jews and Gentiles of the lordship of Christ.

Evidence and Proof

In everyday life, we’re used to operating on the basis of evidence. When a case goes to trial, it is decided on the basis of the evidence presented. When we hear someone relate an anecdote about a friend, we decide whether or not we believe it based on the evidence. It’s not surprising that a lot of arguments for the truth of Christianity appeal to that innate preference for evidence.

Arguments from evidence are usually what logicians call inductive arguments. Inductive arguments tell you that something is probably true, depending on the strength of the evidence. In comparison, deductive arguments tell you that something must be true, if the premises supporting it are true. We rely on both kinds of logic in everyday life.

But which is stronger in a debate: Saying something is probably true, or that it must be true?

Atheists frequently reject clear evidence for God’s existence because it doesn’t “prove” He exists beyond a shadow of a doubt. There’s still a possibility, however remote, that there might be some other explanation.

You might be thinking that there must be something more effective for these atheists. You’d be right.

Presuppositions and Worldview

Cornelius_Van_Til
Cornelius Van Til, a pioneer of presuppositional apologetics.

Some Christian philosophers studied this behavior. They realized that for many Christians and atheists alike, no evidence could be produced that would convince them to change their minds. They would just shrug off or reinterpret evidence that didn’t fit their worldview.

That, they realized, was not exactly a bad thing – it’s just the way things are. Our worldview, the base facts we already take to be true, determines how we interpret new evidence. The debate, then, had to be shifted to the level of those presuppositions that are taken for granted.

Instead of debating whether or not the creation showed evidence of design, these philosophers held up two worldviews – the Christian worldview and the non-Christian worldview – and showed off the presuppositions under each one. The laws of logic, for instance, or the laws of morality. Then they asked, “Which worldview actually fits these presuppositions?”

Theological Foundations

As you might expect, the debate between evidential and presuppositional apologetics runs deeper than the technical differences between the arguments. It is the underlying theology that stirs up the deepest divides.

Evidential arguments are often accompanied by what might be called “enlightenment theology.” This is the notion that men are naturally reasonable, and just don’t believe in God because they don’t have sufficient reason to. If given sufficiently persuasive arguments, most people will be happy to believe in the truth of Christianity.

Presuppositional arguments are usually accompanied by what might be called “depravity theology.” This is the notion that, in their fallen nature, men are rebels against God and hate His truth, and would much rather disbelieve His existence. They will do whatever they can to explain away evidence or arguments for His existence.

Note that these aren’t always connected. You’ll sometimes find an apologist using presuppositional arguments from a foundation of enlightenment theology, or evidential arguments from a foundation of depravity theology. But there is a strong correlation.

Up Next

Apologetics is a difficult subject to summarize so briefly. This overview is doubtless imprecise to some degree, but it should set the stage for the next post. We’ll dig in to address the claim that prompted this series: that presuppositional arguments are the only legitimate way to prove the existence of God.

In the mean time, if you’d like a more thorough explanation of presuppositional apologetics, here are a couple resources to check out:

Next Post: The Effectiveness of Presuppositional Apologetics (Part 2)

Photo of Cornelius Van Til from The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987, CD-ROM (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997), ISBN 0875524613.

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