This article represents an attempt to: (1) define presuppositional apologetics; and (2) show why such a method is ultimately defective.
Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was one of the better known presuppositionalists. His method of approach consisted of assuming a worldview, drawing the implications inherent within that particular worldview, and then testing those implications for truth. This is also the approach taken by many who have been influenced by Schaeffer. The difficulty with such a method is that a given position (say, atheistic naturalism) can be shown to be false if the implications turn out to be false, but the truth of a position cannot be established in this way. In other words, presuppositional apologetics can falsify, but not justify any given worldview, including that of Christianity. Thomas Morris, who wrote a book critiquing Schaeffer’s approach said:
Dr. Schaeffer does not succeed in demonstrating the necessity of that position [the Christian position], as he claims to have done. But his arguments do move in the direction of establishing the possibility, or even likelihood—a major move in the secular climate of this century. (20)
The question is, will truth seekers be satisfied with a position that is only possibly true at best? Morris had earlier mentioned the attitude of the presuppositionalist toward theistic argumentation (in which one attempts to establish the existence of God, the Deity of Christ, etc.). He stated:
It becomes clear in Schaeffer’s books that one of the few foundational presuppositions of historic orthodox Christianity is the “infinite-personal” triune God. Accordingly, it has been said that he rejects the traditional proofs for the existence of God. Although Schaeffer himself never mentions these proofs, one of his closest associates, Os Guiness, has explicitly repudiated theistic proof, clearly revealing a position that the orthodox concept of God is not derivable from argumentation, but must be accepted from revelation and held presuppositionally. This argumentation may operate only in confirmatory or supporting roles, as is the manner of all presuppositional reasoning. (20)
Briefly put, when asked for a reason as to why one believes as he does, the presuppositionalist answer is, in effect, “I accept it by faith,” by which is meant, “I have assumed my position to be true, but there is no positive way to prove it.” After having assumed his position to be true, the presuppositionalist can ask whether such an assumption is “reasonable” or not, or whether such a position makes “better sense” than other possible alternatives. He is thereby reduced to disproving another’s position without any justifiable way to establish his own.
In general, presuppositionalists maintain that all knowledge is based on faith; since one can never prove or justify his basic premises, he must presuppose them or view them as assumptions. Since everyone is under the same limitation, the presuppositionalist claims that he is entitled to begin with Christian assumptions. He also insists that in doing so consciously, he is more critical than those who imperceptively think of their starting points as obvious, apodictic, or proven truths.
The presuppositionalist finds putative support for his perspective in a variety of biblical passages, most notably Hebrews 11:6—he who comes to God must believe that God exists. This negates the legitimacy of attempted theistic proofs. Indeed, the entire Bible is said to “assume” the existence of God. In this way the presuppositionalist holds that his approach provides the only adequate apologetic for the Christian faith, for it alone conforms to the structure of general epistemology and to the priority of faith laid down to biblical teaching. (Hanna 125)
At this point, a distinction must be made between comprehensive and limited presuppositionalism. Comprehensive presuppositionalists claim that all of their starting points are assumptions, including their own existence as well as the existence of an external world. For instance, Arlie Hoover stated:
Most people are realists by habit, but how can you ever prove perfectly the conviction of realism [that you really exist and that there really is a world “out there”]? You can’t, you just assume it because it works and it makes so much sense—much, much more sense than solipsism. But assuming it because it explains is what I mean by faith—proof by indirect methods. (30)
Hoover makes a presuppositional case when he says, “give the theory a chance and see if it can make a reasonable case for itself” (19) and “faith is never forced by the evidence” (28). Of course faith is never “forced” by the evidence, in the sense that one is compelled to accept the conclusions. That does not happen in any field, for we are free to reject any conclusion, even those that are airtight and sound.
Limited presuppositionalists, on the other hand, may admit some certain starting point (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction) and then build their case on the self-consistency of the Christian system as opposed to other worldviews.
Other presuppositionalists than those already mentioned include: Gordon H. Clark, Edward J. Carnell, Carl F. H. Henry, and Cornelius Van Til. For instance, Carnell writes: “The Christian . . . [has] chosen as his logical starting-point the existence of God who has revealed Himself in Scripture” (212). Van Til contends that, “for the human mind to know any fact truly, it must presuppose the existence of God” (19). Clark takes the same approach when he asserts: “. . . unless a thinker begins with God, he can never end with God, or get the facts either” (Philosophy, 38). Hence, “The Calvinists begin with [assume] God and revelation” (Clark, Christian View 259). And finally, Carl F. H. Henry argues: “[Y]ou must begin with God, not only to get to God, but to get to anything. . . . [T]he existence of God is the necessary presupposition for the affirmation of intelligibility anywhere” (226-27). Indeed, it is accurate to state, as did Stuart Hackett:
The first and most basic assertion of presuppositionalism is that one must start with the assumption that the God who has spoken in Scripture is the true God. . . . The Christian God, therefore [per presuppositional apologetics], must be taken as a basic, unproved assumption, if we wish to arrive at a true knowledge of God: this basic postulate is a matter of choice or volition. (158, 160)
The existence of God is merely assumed in presuppositional apologetics. One may attempt to argue the “reasonableness” of his claim after his initial assumption has been made, but then his case has been compromised already before he attempts to make it. This is the case, since it is absurd to ask one to believe as true a thing which is merely assumed as true.
Another example of presuppositional apologetics is found in A Scientist Examines Faith and Evidence written by Donald England. This book is an example of Comprehensive Presuppositionalism. For example, consider the following:
The approach used in this text is presuppositional rather than dogmatic. That is, a faith of some kind is shown to be essential in every walk of life and discipline. Yet, it is shown that there is no superior alternative to Christian faith. . . . The importance of the Christian walk in faith is repeatedly emphasized over reliance on proofs, signs, or demonstrations that tend to exclude faith. Evidences are merely indicators; they are not the object of faith. Evidences are not the basis of faith. (13)
Although Professor England correctly observes that evidences are not the object of faith (that is because God and/or His will for man is the “object” of faith), he incorrectly asserts: (1) that evidence tends to exclude faith; and (2) that evidence is not the basis of faith. If a person has no idea of what to believe, or that he is to believe in the first place, he is foolish for believing. Yet, the content of faith and the ability to distinguish truth from error are questions to be settled precisely on the basis of evidence. Indeed, they cannot be settled any other way. Thus, it is false that (1) evidence tends to exclude faith; and (2) that evidence is not the basis of faith. One would have no idea what to believe or why he should believe it without evidence showing him the way.
England speaks of an “aversion to proofs,” indicating not only a personal hostility to such attempts, but his belief that, “proof by demonstration . . . would exclude faith” (18). “I do not attempt to prove, to the exclusion of faith, that the Bible is inspired or even that God exists. . . . I . . . attempt to show that faith in God and in Biblical inspiration are reasonable and superior to any belief alternative” (17). Going further than this, he states that each time John uses the term knowledge, “it is knowledge dependent on faith” (22).
A far more influential writer and defender of presuppositionalism today is John Frame, who is professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. For instance, Frame agrees with other presuppositionalists that:
. . . [W]e do legitimately believe most things without proof or argument. This is obviously the case with young children, but it is also the case with adults, and with some of our fundamental beliefs. The belief that there is an external world beyond our own mind, the belief that other people have minds like ours, the belief that the future will resemble the past, and so on. I also agree . . . that it is quite legitimate for someone to believe in Christ without basing that belief on some argument or other. The Spirit creates faith in the heart . . . and that faith may or may not arise through an argumentative process. . . . Argument is not strictly necessary for faith. The importance of apologetics, then, is not that one can’t believe without it; it is rather that apologetic arguments can articulate and confirm the knowledge of God that we all have from creation. (215-16)
Frame argues that the rationality behind faith is God’s rationality, and so, when one says that faith governs reasoning, it is simply to say that the sequence is: God’s rationality—human faith—human reasoning. The dashes would read, “is the rational basis for” (210). He argues that, because of the noetic effects of sin, man (who has inherited sin from Adam) cannot do anything to please God. Hence, God must act on man’s behalf by means of the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting. Indeed, even faith itself is a gift, according to Frame (209). Once one is a Christian, apologetics comes into play as a means to confirm a faith already possessed. He says:
Faith is a demand of God. He calls us in Scripture to repent and believe in Christ (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; John 14:1; Acts 2:38; 16:31). God commands us to do many things that we cannot do in our own strength. To summarize, he calls us to please him in all we do; but apart from grace none of us can please him at all (Rom. 8:7-8). Similarly, the command to believe is one we cannot carry out in our own strength. It requires the grace of God. So in the present context we may say, yes, the unbeliever cannot think according to Christian presuppositions; but that is nevertheless what God demands. And the inquirer will do so, if (and only if) in the course of the apologetic encounter God plants faith in his heart. The apologist can do no more than proclaim the truth, trusting that God will plant faith if and when he wills. (217)
Hence, God’s rationality is preeminent, and leads to God’s grace (the Direct Operation of the Holy Spirit) providing faith as a gift to the elect (the redeemed), after which human reasoning and apologetics has a place. Therefore, we are finally forced to accept the horribly circular argument: “God exists [presupposition], therefore God exists [conclusion]” (217). Indeed, this is the best we can do, according to Frame.
A Response to the False System of Presuppositional Apologetics
The following remarks are directed at all forms of presuppositional apologetics. It is no doubt possible to “excuse” a Calvinist for employing this methodology, since presuppositionalism is in complete harmony with Calvinistic theology (witness the names mentioned earlier, all of whom are Calvinists, except England and Hoover). As a matter of fact, Frame admits that most Calvinists are, in fact, presuppositionalists. There is a notable exception to this in a book written by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, entitled Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. For the most part, however, a consistent Calvinist will lean toward the approach that I am critiquing in this article. John Frame is certainly one of the most avid proponents of this method today. And, there is no “leaning” to his method; he is completely in the camp of presuppositionalism. It is also sometimes called the “Transcendental Argument,” because adherents maintain that acceptance of God’s rationality is a precondition for any rational thought at all. In other words, the skeptic borrows from God’s rational order to offer any arguments at all and, so, he is always caught in hopeless contradiction. This is because he is continuously using God’s premises to argue against God’s premises. Frame explains:
. . . [O]ur argument should be transcendental. That is, it should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion to an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible. We should present him as the source of all meaningful communication, since he is the author of all order, truth, beauty, goodness, logical validity, and empirical fact. (220)
While I agree that this is true in an ontological (i.e. metaphysical) sense, it is not true in an epistemological sense. This is how the created order appears, but it is not the way that we come to know it.
The very popular book written by James Sire, The Universe Next Door, now in its 5th edition, is a classic example of the presuppositional approach when testing worldview claims. Even the very well-known Reformed apologist, Alvin Plantinga, shares much in common with the presuppositional method.
But, I now turn to some critical remarks of this theory. First, presuppositional apologetics is false because of its “aversion to proofs.” Not only is the Bible not opposed to “proofs,” but such is a matter of obligation to the child of God. Paul said, “Prove all things [literally, “put all things to the test”]; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21; cf. Philippians 1:7, 17; 1 Peter 3:15; etc.). Isaiah 41:21 plainly issues forth the challenge from God Himself to those who would argue against His existence: “Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob.” Incidentally, Professor England did spend a great deal of time trying to “prove” to the rest of us the superiority of the presuppositional method. Why bother trying to show us (i.e. “prove”) the best way to argue the case for God, when one consistently denies that such can even be done? Frame also has his ordering wrong, for he says that the proper order of things is: God’s rationality—human faith—human reasoning. I would suggest that it is, in reality: God’s rationality—human reasoning—human faith. To this point, I somewhat agree with Professor Frame that this is the way it is in reality (with the obvious difference in the ordering). The issue is how we humans come to know it. For Frame, God provides this knowledge through the subjective prompting of the Holy Spirit. For myself, we utilize the rational principles that God has built into the human mind and into reality itself in order to come to such knowledge, upon which our commitment of faith is made. Truth is prior to either our conceptions or awareness of it. Using the principles of human reasoning and the evidence we have, we come to know the truth. A commitment of trust and submission made to that known truth is precisely how the Bible uses the term “faith” (cf. John 8:31-32; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; et al.).
Furthermore, faith and knowledge are not opposed one to the other in Scripture. As a matter of fact, there are numerous passages in which they are inseparably joined (cf. John 4:42; 6:69; 17:8; 1 Timothy 4:3; 2 Timothy 1:12; 1 John 4:6, 16; 5:13). Scripture speaks of itself as having been written to produce both faith (John 20:30-31) and knowledge (1 John 5:13). Moreover, Theophilus was told that he could “know the certainty” of those things for which written instruction had been given to him (Luke 1:1-4). None of these passages opposes faith and knowledge. Nowhere does the Bible show an aversion to proofs (cf. Acts 17:2-3, 17; 18:4; et al). Additionally, the Bible does not necessarily separate faith, sight, and knowledge as many presuppositionalists do (cf. John 4:39, 41-42; 12:21-22; 20:26-31; 1 Kings 10:1-7; et al.). Still further, England holds that “knowledge is dependent on faith” rather than the other way around (22, 29). Frame says that “for Christians faith governs reasoning just as it governs all other human activities” (209). Where does faith originate according to Frame? Faith’s cause is the “regenerating work of the Holy Spirit” (by which he means the Calvinistic “Direct Operation of the Holy Spirit”), and its rational basis is truth (but, apparently not knowledge) (209-10). That this viewpoint is false can be ascertained in the words of Augustine:
For who cannot see that thinking [NOTE: The word translated thinking throughout this paragraph is the Latin term for reason] is prior to believing? For no one believes anything unless he has first thought that it is to be believed. . . . It . . . is yet necessary that everything which is believed should be believed after thought has preceded; although even belief is nothing more than to think [reason] with assent. . . . Everybody who believes, thinks—both thinks in believing, and believes in thinking. (499)
No one would have anything at all to believe without knowing the content of that belief. Moreover, one could not believe at all unless he knew that he was supposed to believe. The question is always, believe in what? And, why? Unless knowledge is prior to belief, these questions cannot be answered. The correct order in Scripture is: (1) truth; (2) knowledge of that truth; and (3) belief based upon the knowledge of truth (cf. John 8:31-32). Insofar as Christian faith is concerned, it is never otherwise. And, on this one point alone, presuppositional apologetics is shown to be flawed.
Second, Professor Frame’s distinction between evidence and argument is not necessarily correct. He suggests that we all believe on the basis of evidence, but not necessarily on the basis of argument. He says:
Argument and evidence, of course, are not the same thing. Evidence is those objective facts in the world that warrant a conclusion. Argument is our attempt to show in words how that conclusion is warranted by the facts. But in most of life’s situations, we simply draw conclusions from the facts themselves without formulating arguments. (216)
I find this distinction quite fascinating and terribly mistaken. Drawing conclusions from facts (evidence) is precisely what most of us mean by argument. It may be the unsophisticated argument of the child who hears his mother say, “you come in this house for dinner right now, or I’m going to take a switch to you.” The child’s reasoning is not drawn out in the more sophisticated syllogisms that many of us employ, but it is reasoning and argumentation nonetheless. We could put his understanding in the form of a syllogism, and spell out the implications using valid forms (modus ponens or modus tollens), but it’s not necessary. Frame simply does not give the average person the respect that he/she deserves in the utilization of rational principles to come to their conclusions. One’s arguments are based upon evidence, and without evidence, arguments are useless. They are so strongly interconnected that we cannot divorce them.
Third, what exactly would a presuppositionalist wish us to do with a non-Christian? Since non-Christians do have the stain of Adam’s sin on their souls and, therefore, have the “noetic effects of sin” which make it impossible for them to please God unless God directly acts upon their souls, and since even one’s faith is a gift given through the direct working of the Holy Spirit, how can one assist the non-Christian in coming to embrace the truth of the gospel? How would one come to salvation in Christ? Evidence and argument are useless here, and because this is so, Frame argues that apologetics is used primarily in a confirming role for the Christian. I suppose that one should merely have the non-Christian continue to hope that he/she is one of God’s elect, in which case, the Holy Spirit will eventually give him faith. Otherwise, there is little, if any reason to present arguments to the nonbeliever. In fact, there is little, if any reason, to preach to him either, in spite of the fact that the church has been commissioned to do so by Christ Himself (Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:18-20).
In fact, if we asked John Frame why the non-Christian cannot see the truth of the doctrine of the gospel, or (as he sees it) the doctrine of the inward testimony of the Spirit, Frame would have to say that it does not please God to illuminate everyone’s mind. If this is so, there is no reason whatever for the non-Christian even to read the Bible, because unless God wills to illumine his mind, he will not ever see the wisdom of looking at things from a biblical perspective.
Fourth, besides the fact that presuppositionalist’s tests for truth are ultimately defective (since they cannot justify, but can only falsify any given position), the logic used by presuppositionalists is flawed. There are four possible logical relationships when considering simple hypothetical syllogisms, two of which are valid and two of which are invalid. Validity refers to the fact that the conclusion of the argument follows from the premises in the way that the argument claims. To be sound, an argument must be valid and have premises that are true. An invalid argument is one that cannot produce a necessary conclusion. In other words, the conclusion may not follow at all from the premises. Presuppositionalism is based upon an invalid argument, specifically the fallacy of affirming the consequent (to give it the proper name). Let me illustrate by using a very simple example: “If Dobbin is a living horse, then Dobbin is a living animal.” This relationship is typical of those which are called hypothetical syllogisms. The material between the “if” and the “then” is called the antecedent, and the material following “then” is called the consequent. The two valid arguments are found when the antecedent is affirmed, or the consequent is denied. For instance, “if at least some moral laws are absolute and objective, then an Absolute Moral Law-Giver exists.” If I then affirm that “at least some moral laws are absolute and objective,” then the conclusion follows: “An Absolute Moral Law-Giver exists.” The argument is valid, and if the premises are true, it is also sound. This means that it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false. It follows inescapably from the premises. To turn the argument around and to deny the consequent, one would say: “It is false that an Absolute Moral Law-Giver exists.” Therefore, “it is false that at least some moral laws are absolute and objective.” These are examples of the two valid forms of argumentation when considering a simple hypothetical syllogism.
To return to the example of Dobbin, if I know that “Dobbin is a living horse,” then I also know that “Dobbin is a living animal.” And, if I know that “Dobbin is not a living animal,” then I also know that “Dobbin is not a living horse.” These are the two valid forms in which a necessary conclusion can be drawn. But, if I know that “Dobbin is a living animal,” I cannot know whether or not “Dobbin is a living horse.” After all, from the information given, Dobbin may be a dog, cat, giraffe, or some other animal. In other words, affirming the consequent simply does not yield a necessary conclusion in this type of argument. And, in no sense can one be said to know that the conclusion is true. Now, to the point: if one assumes the existence of God, draws out the implications, and upon testing them finds the implications to be true, he is still left with no possible way to justify the assumption. The argument takes the following form: “If God is assumed to exist, then such and such follows (is true). But, such and such does follow (is true). Therefore, God does exist.” This argument is fallacious, and cannot yield truth. As such, it should never be offered in the name of a defense of the truth.
Still worse, presuppositionalism is hopelessly circular in reasoning. Professor Frame argues that the circularity (which he admits) is not “vicious circularity,” and that “it is not wrong to use evidences and human logic to confirm faith” (210). In other words, once faith is assumed, then one can, and should, use evidences, but not until. The following, though, is why I find this approach so troubling. Frame says:
But are we not still forced to say, “God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion),” and isn’t that argument clearly circular? Yes, in a way. But that is unavoidable for any system, any worldview. For God is the ultimate standard of meaning, truth, and rationality. For a philosophical rationalist, human reason is the ultimate standard. But how can the rationalist argue that position? He must, in the final analysis, say, “Reason is the ultimate standard because reason says so.” (217)
I agree with Frame that God is the “ultimate standard of meaning, truth, and rationality.” The question is though, how do we come to know this? Do we just assume it? Or, can we discover it through a process of reasoning? Since God (the Rational Spirit of the universe) gave us our rationality, it certainly is not out of place to suggest that He expects us to use our minds to discover truth. Ontologically, God exists and is prior to our reasoning about such matters. He would exist, whether or not any other rational creatures exist. Epistemologically, we come to know these truths through the exercise of our God-given reasoning powers. Reason, however, is not the ultimate standard; God is. And, once these truths have been learned, then the proper response is for the reasoning creature to submit his life to the Self-disclosed revelation of God in nature, Scripture, and Christ. In other words, we are responsible to God, not our powers of reason. We use our powers of reason to come to such an awareness.
It is extremely difficult, however, to know how anyone could keep a straight face when arguing, “God exists, therefore, God exists.” It is the same kind of vicious circularity that we find when one says, “God exists.” When asked why, he answers, “Because the Bible says so.” When asked how he knows that the Bible is true, he answers, “Because God exists, and gave us the Bible.” This whole “argument” just continues, with no real proof being given for the conclusions. All of the answers are classic examples of reasoning in a circle, or, begging the question. No conclusion follows at all from such a process, nor can any conclusion follow. The arguments are logically flawed, and hopelessly so.
There are at least four basic problems with presuppositional apologetics as I have covered in this brief article. More could be said, but what I have covered demonstrates that the method is largely defective. In the first place, there is an “aversion to proofs” which is simply not found in the Bible, nor is it philosophically sound. The second problem is that presuppositional apologetics, at least as presented by Professor Frame, falsely separates evidence and argument. His suggestion that they are not the same thing has a ring of truth, but his further implication that they should be separated makes no sense. It is like saying that, since the body and spirit are different in human beings, they must, of necessity, be separated in reality. In the third place, on Calvinistic assumptions (which are in harmony with presuppositional apologetics), it is difficult to know how one could or would approach the non-Christian. It seems as if such is really impossible, and consequently, apologetics in the classical sense, is simply out of place. In the fourth place, presuppositional apologetics is hopelessly flawed logically, for it is built upon a fallacy and it is also viciously circular in its reasoning.
However, I do employ the method of presuppositionalism as a form of negative apologetics. Let me explain: if any given worldview, say, naturalism implies A, B, and C, and if A, B, and C turn out to be false, then by modus tollens (i.e. denying the consequent), naturalism is also false. As I said, one can falsify any given position using this method; we just cannot justify one. And, that is why presuppositional apologetics is a method to be avoided.
There are other critical remarks that could be offered, but I think these remarks are not needed at this point. It is true that some presuppositionalists have unusual twists to their view, however, the main problems have been outlined in this article, and I offer it as it stands.
Dick Sztanyo studied Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics under Thomas B. Warren at Harding Graduate School of Religion. He has done additional study at the International Academy of Philosophy and Andrews University as well as doctoral work in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. Mr. Sztanyo may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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