Practical apologetics #1: What is presuppositional apologetics?

Updated: Apr 14

This the first part of our practical apologetics series.

You're probably thinking "Ugh, not another 'what is apologetics' article quoting 1 Peter 3:15", and you're right, there's enough of those to go around. The purpose of this article (and the following series) is slightly different, which we believe might justify squeezing in just one more of these before we venture of into different applications of apologetics later in the series. There seems to be a lack of online material that aims to make presuppositional apologetics practical and easy to grasp to a wider audience. Mainstream apologetics websites and articles all seem to assume the evidential method is the way to go, and hence don't take long to introduce their readers to some form of the cosmological argument or the moral argument to get the started in apologetics, without offering much of a prolegomena (introduction) to the subject which can act as a governing framework for answering objections (delivering an apologia / apologetic) in any situation.

At Apologetics Central, we believe that these popular arguments have a place in discussions with unbelievers, but we'd like to introduce you to a different (and probably new) way of approaching the subject known as the presuppositional way, which acts as a framework in which these arguments can be presented in a Biblical fashion. In order to do this, let's set up a scenario:

Imagine you're sitting at a campfire with your unbelieving friend, far away from the sounds and distractions of the city, surrounded by nature and underneath the stars. How would you approach your friend in conversation about Christianity? Your desire for your friend would be that he (let's assume your friend is male) share with you in the freedom and peace that the Gospel gives you as a Christian, and hence you'd want him to place his trust in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. So, how do you get your friend to convert to Christianity? Where do you start?

The Gospel

According to the Bible, faith comes from hearing the message of the Gospel, so naturally, that's probably where you'll start.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Romans 10:14-17, ESV

Arguments or the Gospel?

You're probably wondering why we're talking about sharing the Gospel when this is an introductory post on apologetics.

If the Gospel is left out of the conversation and the focus is solely placed on some argument for the existence of a god, your friend would be no closer to faith in Christ than he was before hearing all the arguments, as faith can come only if your friend understands that he is a sinner in need of a saviour, and that God has presented a Saviour in the person of Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead on the third day.

Your friend is not in need of more facts, or more information in order to convert. His problem is a moral problem, not an intellectual problem. This is, of course, because the person already has knowledge of God (the true God) that is being suppressed in unrighteous so that they are without excuse for denying God:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools

Romans 1:18-22, ESV

The issue for the unbeliever is therefore not intellectual, but moral. This idea is reinforced in Psalm 14:1.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.

Psalm 14:1, ESV

Calling unbelievers who deny the existence of God, "fools", is making a moral judgement, not an intellectual judgement. Unbelievers love sin, and hate God. By their nature they will reject / suppress the knowledge of God, and substitute their own gods in God's place, thereby exchanging the truth for a lie.

Evangelism or apologetics?

So, which is it now, evangelism or apologetics? Why are we mixing the two?

Evangelism is defined as the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness. Apologetics can be defined as a reasoned defence of the Christian faith (Gospel).

The close connection between evangelism and apologetics is immediately noted above. It is indeed evangelism that seems to bring us to the need for apologetics. If the goal is to spread the Gospel in order to grow God's Kingdom (as Jesus commanded us in the great commission of Matthew 28), there doesn't seem to be a place where apologetics can stand separate from evangelism (unless perhaps in helping to strengthen the faith of Christians). This indicates that apologetics is not merely a field of "intellectual jousting" as Bahnsen put it in his article on evangelism and apologetics. It is a matter of eternal life and death. The way in which we do apologetics should ultimately serve the Gospel, and be consistent with the message of the Gospel.

It's not hard to imagine that our unbelieving friend, after hearing the message of the Gospel, might have a few questions as to "why" we believe the message of the Gospel ourselves. This is where evangelism turns into apologetics, and it is this context we find in 1 Peter 3:15, the most quoted verse by people who have an interest in apologetics:

...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, ESV

A widely neglected part of this verse is the first part of the command to Christians, that should honor Christ as the Lord before we make the defense to anyone who asks it from us. This naturally leads us to our following section:

Worldviews and presuppositions

Let's say you've outlined the Gospel and its importance to your friend, and he's started to ask a few questions in order to challenge your belief in the message you brought him. How do you proceed from here?

Before we can outline the high level procedure that is applicable to every apologetical situation, we first need scout the battlefield and understand our own - and our opponents' worldview and commitments. This is a well documented and essential part of conflict and debate:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

No person approaches a particular subject (like the existence of God) with neutrality as every person has a worldview with certain presuppositions. Greg Bahnsen defines a presupposition as follows:

A “presupposition” is an elementary assumption in one’s reasoning or in the process by which opinions are formed. … a “presupposition” is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging, foundational perspective (or starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated. As such, presuppositions have the greatest authority in one’s thinking, being treated as one’s least negotiable beliefs and being granted the highest immunity to revision.

Greg Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic

He defines a worldview as follows in his Introduction to worldviews lecture series:

A worldview is a network of presuppositions that are not tested by natural science and in terms of which all experience is related and interpreted.

It would therefore do us well to examine the worldview and presuppositions of ourselves as Christians, and of our unbelieving friend before discussing the proper procedure for engaging in apologetics with our friend. The controversy between the believer and unbeliever is in principle an antithesis (a person or thing that is the direct opposite of someone or something else) between two complete systems of thought, or worldviews, (Christian and non-Christian) involving ultimate commitments, or presuppositions.

The Christian will view all facts through his / her Christian presuppositions, and the unbeliever will view all facts through the lens of non-Christian presuppositions.

Paul seems to mention something related to the above in Colossians 2:

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge... See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [elemental principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:3b, 8, ESV

What does Paul mean when he talks about the "elemental principles of this world"? It seems like Paul is using this phrase to expand on the type of philosophy that is according to "human tradition" and that is not "according to Christ".

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