Apologetic Method and Presuppositional Apologetics


By Daniel L. Sonnenberg

A presupposition is a belief or “basic commitment of the heart” which takes precedence over another belief and becomes a criterion for that other belief or commitment. Ron Nash writes that presuppositions are like a train running along a track with no switches to control it. Once the train is started down that track, its direction and destination is predetermined. Henry Van Til and John Frame refer to presuppositions as “colored glasses” through which we “see” everything.

If our glasses are colored red we see everything with a red tint. If they are green, everything has a green tint. We can’t help but see things this way as long as we wear those glasses. Our most basic presuppositions take precedence over and “color” all other beliefs. John Calvin urges a particular ultimate presupposition – Scripture. He urges Christians to view everything through the “spectacles of Scripture.” By this he means that we are to view everything as though looking through the Scriptures to see it. Therefore, we view everything: ourselves, the world, and God, through God’s interpretation of that subject found in Scripture. For the presuppositional apologist, Scripture is his most basic presupposition. All his beliefs will founded on Scripture. The reason the apologist does this is because he believes that in the Fall, man’s intellect also fell, becoming totally depraved along with his will and emotions. Therefore, neither the Christian nor the unbeliever can reason correctly. So he needs God’s interpretation found in Scripture to have a correct interpretation. Presuppositional apologetics presupposes God before seeking to prove Christianity is in accord with reason and fact and argues that unless reason and fact are interpreted in terms of God they are unintelligible. Sin makes man the final reference point. Scripture makes God the final reference point. This paper will begin by outlining a biblical epistemology or theory of knowledge, then proceed to discuss the noetic effects of sin and conclude with a discussion of apologetics using the transcendental argument.

Biblical epistemology

Epistemology examines two things: what we know and how we know it. That is, it investigates the objects of knowledge and the justification of knowledge. The objects of knowledge – God, the world and ourselves – are perspectival. That is, we know one by knowing the others. They are interrelated or correlative. Because they are perspectives on the same thing, we can begin anywhere. However, since we are saying that Scripture is foundational to the presuppositional apologist, let us begin with God who is the author of Scripture.

As Lord, God is the head of the covenant in relation to his subjects. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is Lord. In the New Testament, Jesus is Lord. As Lord, he exercises his control, authority and presence. He controls everything that happens, he serves as the authoritative judge of everything and is intimately involved in everything that happens. As such, he is “absolute personality.” It is not possible to challenge his power or his authority because they are ultimate. Yet he is personal.

God is both knowable and incomprehensible. We can know what he has revealed to us in his Word and by natural revelation. Romans 1:19-21 tells us that everyone knows God, even unbelievers. “…[T]hat which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Unbelievers know God, yet they suppress that knowledge. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness…” (Rom. 1.18). Christians, on the other hand, have a knowledge of God that leads to eternal life. “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17.3).  However, we cannot know God comprehensively. “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor” (Rom. 11.34)? So God is knowable, but we cannot know everything there is to know about him. For to do so we would need to be omniscient as God is.

We know about God as Lord and have a knowledge subject to his Lordship. Through his control, authority and presence in the world he makes himself known to us. Moreover, he exercises his covenantal control, authority and presence in regard to that knowledge. It is based on his revelation to us; it  is an obedient knowledge; and it is a befriending knowledge, respectively.

Knowing God involves knowing the world. According to Frame, God acts in the world in creation, providence and redemption. God reveals himself in the world through Scripture, through his prophets, miracles, theophanies and supremely in Christ. Also, God wants us to apply his word in our own situation in the world.

Knowing ourselves involves knowing the world and knowing God. Since we are part of the world, we know ourselves by knowing (interacting with) the world. Every fact is inseparable from its interpretation. Facts are interpreted by God and by man. God is the ultimate judge of facts; his is the ultimate interpretation. Man also interprets facts. His is a derived judgment. There are no neutral or “brute” facts without an interpretation. All facts are interpreted facts. Knowing ourselves involves knowing God because we are made in his image.

In the foregoing section, we have attempted to answer the question, “What do we know?” Now we will move on to the question of “how we know” or “on what basis we know.” This is called the justification of knowledge. It has been said that knowledge is “justified true belief.” As Christian apologists we must justify or give reasons for our beliefs. “…[B]ut sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…(1 Pet. 3.15). The purpose of epistemology, according to Frame, is to become as self-conscious as possible about our reasons for believing. He further states that epistemology is a subdivision of ethics. As such, justification requires that it be in accordance with an ethical standard, that it produces a desirable consequence and that it be a product of a good motive. A justified belief, then, obligates us to act upon it. It carries an ethical “ought.”

There are three traditional epistemologies in which the basis for knowing is autonomous man: rationalism, empiricism and subjectivism. These three operate separately or in concert. In rationalism, human knowledge is ultimate. In empiricism, human sense experience is ultimate. In subjectivism, internal human criteria are ultimate.

A fourth and alternative basis for knowing is God and his Word. God is the ultimate basis of knowledge and supersedes all those enumerated above. Scripture tells us that knowledge and wisdom begin with the “fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1.7; 9.10).  There are several ways of examining justification: the normative, situational and existential perspectives. As Lord, God’s normative authority is supreme in every area including knowledge. Therefore, he is the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong including what we believe. We can have right beliefs and wrong beliefs according to God’s judgment. Moreover, the facts of our situation are based on God’s interpretation of them. Finally, to be justified, our knowledge must include an ethical “ought,” a persuasive element that leads to “cognitive rest” or Godly satisfaction warranted by Scripture. These three perspectives are mutually dependent and neither is ultimate. In apologetics, we must reason with the unbeliever on the basis of Scripture even though he may not be willing to accept it. The only other alternative is to reason on the basis of human autonomy which amounts to idolatry.

Noetic effects of sin

As mentioned earlier, in the Fall, Adam’s intellect, along with the rest of his being, became totally depraved. He was not as bad as he could possibly be, but nevertheless every aspect of his humanity was sinful, including his intellect, his reason. In Adam, the mind or reason of all his descendants, except Christ, are fallen. That is why the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1.19-20 that man sins with his mind. “…[T]hat which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” Man’s intellectual disobedience is sin. He knows the truth but suppresses it. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness… For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1.18,21). Suppression of the truth leads to irrationality. The sinner’s basic presupposition is that man is autonomous. He makes his own judgments on what is true based on human knowledge, sense experience or inner criteria, which, because they are fallen, can be mistaken. Those judgments are not only mistaken, in the case of the unbeliever, they are rebellious.

Fortunately, because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, through conversion we can experience a renewal of our reason. It will not be totally renewed until the final judgment, but as Frame says, our reason takes a new direction. It begins to move toward God and his Word, accepting his judgments in matters. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove that the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12.2). “But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16).”

Apologetics using the transcendental argument

The presuppositional apologist believes that the issue between the Christian and the non-Christian cannot be settled by an appeal to the facts which can be agreed upon by both parties. Therefore, a transcendental argument is employed. First, I will define a transcendental argument and then outline a procedure for using it in an apologetic encounter. A transcendental argument is one which presupposes that all facts, thought and meaning logically presuppose the God of Scripture. That is, without God, nothing has any meaning at all. Therefore, the apologist not only presupposes the reality of a self-contained triune God and his self-attesting revelation through Scripture to prove Christianity, but also to make sense of any fact in the world. God is the final reference point required which makes the facts intelligible. In the apologetic argument, the God of the Scripture is at the beginning, is everything in the middle and at the end of the argument for the apologist. According to Van Til, this type of argument may begin with any item of experience or belief and then ask what conditions or beliefs need to be true for that original experience or belief to make sense to us. Frame makes a similar statement when he says that a variety of arguments can be used to prove and defend Christian theism. This can include the traditional teleological, cosmological and ontological arguments since, according to Mavrodes, apologetics is “person variable.”

Once the encounter begins, literally anywhere, since God controls, judges and is present with all facts, the apologist should proceed to do three things as needed: proof, defense and offense. These may be done in any order that makes sense in the argument. There is not a necessary order as in the Classical method. The apologist may present arguments to positively prove Christian theism. He may make a defense of apparent contradictions such as the problem of evil or divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Finally, he may attack the weaknesses of the unbeliever’s system of thought.

The method for proof entails showing that Christian theism is consistent within itself. Since the apologist is presupposing God, he does not need to prove God, but only to show that every fact about God, the world and ourselves makes sense when considered from a biblical point of view. Since the unbeliever is not likely to accept the Christian’s presupposition, the believer should ask the non-Christian to consider the Scriptural presupposition “for the sake of argument.” Then the Christian should proceed to argue from whatever starting point they began since every fact leads to God. Defensive arguments should be carried out in the same manner, always presupposing the Scriptural point of view “for the sake of argument.” When it comes to offensive or negative arguments, two methods may be used. The apologist may ask the unbeliever to demonstrate how any given fact makes sense within the unbeliever’s system of thought in an effort to show him that it will end in irrationality by a reduction to absurdity. Or the apologist should presuppose the unbeliever’s system “for the sake of argument,” again using any fact, demonstrating that it will lead to a logical contradiction.  In so doing, the apologist demonstrates that on the non-Christian’s presupposition of chance occurrences in an impersonal universe, one cannot account for any order or rationality.  The apologist should also continue to press the moral question of where the unbeliever’s moral values come from, because at its heart this is a moral issue. God is personal and is personally offended by the unbeliever’s rebellion. The unbeliever’s world-view is impersonal in order to avoid responsibility for his sin. By these means the apologist seeks not only to intellectually persuade the unbeliever that he cannot get along without God and that all facts make sense only in the Christian theistic world-view, but to evoke or strengthen his faith in the covenant Lord.

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