The general approach to apologetics advocated on this blog known as presuppositionalism. This method builds off the work of scholars like William Edgar, K. Scott Oliphint, Lane Tipton, Greg Bahnsen, and John M. Frame. But behind them all lies the seminal work of theologian Cornelius Van Til. I’ve provided an intro to Van Til’s thought elsewhere on this blog (here, here, and here) so I won’t do that now.
Van Til’s approach to apologetics is built off the premise that a robust defense of the faith grows from the soil of a carefully nuanced understanding of Christian theology. As Greg Bahnsen used to teach, worldviews are a network of presuppositions. And these worldviews are inherently theological.
But consider this: For Van Til, the term “presupposition” had subtle shades of meaning. This can make reading Van Til (and his disciples) confusing at times. Many never quite makes this distinctions explicit, but a careful study bears out at least a threefold usage. The following is my own expansion of Frame’s exposition in his Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought.
- P1: The first sense of the term underscores the underlying awareness all people have of God, regardless of whether or not they are regenerate. All people, in their heart of hearts, know God, that He exists, has created them for Himself, and requires that they live in a certain fashion (think Romans 1:18-32). This type of presupposition is inescapable, and no matter how hard fallen men and women try to suppress it, they can never quite shake it off. Sometimes they are less self-conscious of it, and sometimes more so, but it never goes away. Calvin spoke of this as the “sense of deity” in all men.
So, for example, Van Til taught, “The non-Christian…even in his virtual negation of God, he is still really presupposing God (Christian Theory of Knowledge, 13).”
- P2: The second usage of the presupposition refers to someone’s espoused belief-system, whether Christian or non-Christian. This is closely associated with what we think of as a worldview. This is the conscious and theoretical activity of integrating one’s belief about reality, knowledge, and values.
Greg Bahnsen defined a worldview as a network of presuppositions. He taught:
Presuppositions form a wide-ranging foundational perspective or starting point in terms of which everything else we believe is interpreted, in terms of which everything else we believe is evaluated and interrelated. And that’s why presuppositions are said to have the greatest “authority” in one’s thinking. Presuppositions will turn out to be the least negotiable beliefs a person has. People will grant to their presuppositions the highest degree of immunity to revision.
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.
- P3: A person’s ultimate heart commitment. This is largely unconscious pre-theoretical. I think it’s safe to say that when P1 and P3 work in tandem you have the beginning development of P2.
Arguably, John Frame has clarified the heart-nature of presuppositions best:
Perhaps presuppositionalism is more in attitude of the heart, a spiritual condition, than an easily describable, empirical phenomenon. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, 87)
With these distinctions in mind one thing becomes apparent. All unbelievers operate with different kinds of presuppositions. In one sense (P1) the unbeliever acknowledges God, and in others senses (P2 & P3) they seek to muffle God’s voice and censor his revelation.
I’m going out on the limb here, but to organize this under John Frame’s perspectives, I think we can get along fine this way:
1. P1, Normative: God has created us to think this way; it’s both a) part of our creational constitution, and b) a result of God’s never-ending revelation.
2. P2, Situational: We develop systems of thought (whether closer to the truth or not) by responding to various issues and concerns of life. For a Christian, we seek to develop a Christian worldview in order to submit our thoughts to God’s revealed word, and ultimately to God Himself. Unbelievers develop various non-Christian worldviews in order to escape God’s revelation in the vain pursuit of autonomy.
3. P3, Existential: This is the deepest drive of our heart. It’s the subjective element in knowing, the giving-over of oneself to something. It’s where P1 and P2 meet. For a Christian, when P1 and P2 meet, there is rejoicing and thanksgiving to God for His grace to us in providing us with His revelation as a sure-footed guide to life and holiness (a wordy sentence, I know!). On the other hand, when P1 and P2 meet for an unbeliever, this drives them, whether self-consciously or not, to run farther and farther away from the God who created them and graciously sustains them. It’s this aspect of the term presupposition that leads to the hostility that we often encounter when speaking with unbelievers. God impinges upon their autonomy, and they will not have it.
Thinking this through. Let’s pursue this line of thinking a bit further. With P1, we can see that all Christians, by virtue 1) creation in God’s image, and 2) their redemption and possession of the Holy Spirit, know that God is sovereign and indeed the King over their lives. God’s authority and His decisions cannot be questioned (Ps. 115:3, 135:6; Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:11). All that He does, whether or not we understand it, is good and right (cf. Rom. 9:19-21). This is easily demonstrated, for example, by the fact that even those who do not believe that God ordains all that comes to pass (a Reformed belief), nevertheless do not want to blame God for evil, and speak of God “allowing” evil, etc. They blame people for evil and injustice, but never God. The very notion of God doing something wrong is foreign to them (as it should be). So, in this sense, all believers have an advantage over non-Christian interpreters in handling Scripture (you’ll also notice how closely this is related to P3)
Now, let’s consider P2. While Christians, because of P1, know God, they nevertheless do not always develop a biblically faithful worldview. They may know that God is sovereign and king of all things (P1), but their system of interpretation (P2) prohibits them from putting flesh on that concept; it simply cannot account for it. Another example might help. Arminians believe that God is the ruler of all things (P1), and rightly so, because he is! Yet, their theological system (P2) deprives God of the right to turn people’s hearts toward himself in grace (Acts 11:18, 16:14; 2 Tim. 2:25). Without this crucial biblical teaching, their system (P2) doesn’t make sense of their intercessory prayer (which is rooted in their P1 knowledge of God).
If I’ve got all my presuppositional ducks in a row, I think this perspectival analysis of the term ‘presupposition’ in the work of Van Til and his disciples potentially does two things. First, it clarifies a lot of insider-speak, and second, it brings to light the subtle nuanced position of presuppositional apologetics.
The point of Christian ethics is not to be as liberal as we can be, or as conservative. It is, rather, to be as biblical as we can be…Jesus rebuked both the conservative Pharisees and the liberal Sadducees; Paul rebuked both legalists and libertines. Understanding God’s will rarely means falling into lockstep with some popular ideology. We need to think as part of a community, listening to our brothers and sisters, but we also need the courage to step aside from the crowd when God’s word directs us in that way.
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 6-7
These words are especially poignant during an election year.
Cogent and persuasive ethical reasoning presupposes a worldview and standards of judgment. It is not easy to argue these from nature alone. For Christians, these standards come from Scripture. So apart from Scripture, ethical argument loses its cogency and often it’s persuasiveness. Nonbelievers, of course, won’t usually accept Scripture as authoritative. But they may at least respect an argument that is self-conscious about its epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions.
In public discussion, it may sometimes be desirable to argue a position without directly referring to Scripture. We may, for example, point to the cultural consequences of China’s one-child policy, or to the general indifference to human life encouraged by legalized abortion, or to the societal consequences of secularized education. Arguments like these will be persuasive to some non-Christians. They appeal to that knowledge of natural revelation that they are unable fully to suppress. But when someone presses us to ask, for example, why we think that indifference to human life is a bad thing, we must in the end refer to Scripture, for that is the ultimate source of our values.
In Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame gives his readers what is, to my mind, the best and “personalist” understanding of theology and it’s goal:
Theology, then, must be a secondary description, a reinterpretation and reproclamation of Scripture, both of its propositional and of its non-propositional content. Why do we need such a reinterpretation? To meet human needs… The job of theology is to teach people the truth of God…theology is justified by the help it brings to people, by its success in helping people to use the truth.
If theology is a purely “objective” discipline where the scientist determines “the truth as it really is” apart from any human need, then he cannot help but be in competition with Scripture. He will be seeking a better formulation than Scripture itself contains or at least a better “order.”
“Objectivism” continues to be a danger in orthodox Christian circles. It is also easy for us to imagine that we have a higher task than merely that of helping people… Our theologies are not even the best formulation of truth-for-people for all times and places; Scripture is that. Our theologies are merely attempts to help people, generally in specific times and places, to use Scripture better.
I would suggest that we define theology as “the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life.”
Despite its focus on human need, this definition does a full justice to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Sola scriptura does not require that human needs be ignored in theology, only that Scripture have the final say about the answers to those needs (and about the propriety of the questions presented).
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 79-81.
Since the Enlightenment, the ideal model for knowledge is objectivity. This type of objectivity is one that is able to lift itself from the “corrupting” influences of subjectivity. Many Christians have taken the bait and even applied it to our knowledge of God. But is this a biblical concept? John Frame responds:
Sometimes we dream fondly of a “purely objective” knowledge of God–a knowledge of God of freed from the limitations of our senses, minds, experiences, preparation, and so forth. But nothing of this sort is possible, and God does not demand that of us. Rather, He condescends to dwell in and with us, as in a temple. He identifies himself in and through our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. And that identification is clear; it is adequate for Christian certainty. A “purely objective” knowledge is precisely what we don’t want! Such knowledge would presuppose a denial of our creaturehood and thus a denial of God and of all truth. (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 65)
In his article titled “Introduction to the Reformed Faith,” John Frame helpfully delineates the core beliefs of Evangelical theology:
What are the main beliefs of evangelical theology? An evangelical, in my definition, is one who professes historic Protestant theology. That includes the following beliefs:
(1) God is a person, infinitely wise, just, good, true and powerful, the ultimate reality, exclusively deserving religious worship and unquestioning obedience, who made the world out of nothing.
(2) Man, made in the image of God, willfully disobeyed God’s command, and thereby became worthy of death. From that time on, all human beings save Jesus Christ have been guilty of sin before God.
(3) Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man. He was (literally, really) born of a virgin. He worked miracles. He fulfilled prophecy. He suffered and died for our sin, bearing its guilt and penalty. He was raised physically from the dead. He will come again (literally, physically) to gather his people and to judge the world.
What do Reformed apologists mean by a presupposition? Too often it is mistakenly believed that Van Tillian or presuppositional apologists use the word ‘presupposition’ to refer to either a starting axiom or a mere assumption. John Frame helpfully parses out the nuances of a Van Tillian usage of the term:
A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition…This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought. It merely applies the doctrine of scriptural infallibility to the realm of knowing. - The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 45.
Frame elaborates further:
The lordship of Christ is not only ultimate and unquestionable, not only above and beyond all other authorities, but also over all areas of human life. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (cf. Rom.14:23; 2 Cor. 10:5; Col. 3:17,23; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Our Lord’s demand upon us is comprehensive. In all that we do, we must seek to please him. No area of human life is neutral. -Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 7.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to restructure the transcendental argument for God’s existence (aka TAG) in terms that the non-specialist can understand and use. I’ve written about this argument for the Christian worldview elsewhere (here, here and here), so I won’t go into detail now.
Those who are regular readers of Kingdomview know that my thought has been greatly shaped by a couple of thinkers, the chief of which, both theologically and philosophically, is John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. His perspectival approach to thinking has lead me, more times than I can recall, to think in threes. It also helps me to understand how God’s word, God’s gospel, and its application to my life.
So, stated in “Framian” terms, the Bible speaks of God’s word, God’s world, and God’s image (human beings). How is TAG rearticulated in this triperspectival language? Well, here’s a shot:
The transcendental goal of apologetics is to witness to the reality that human experience (in all its fullness) doesn’t make sense unless
- God exists and is Who the Bible says he is,
- the world is what the Bible says it is, and
- we’re the type of people the Bible describes us to be.
The next step in our apologetic strategy is to demonstrate that, in one way or another, every non-Christian religion or vision of life (i.e. worldview) implicitly or explicitly attacks or denies one or more of these points.
A naturalistic worldview, for example, denies at least 2 points. There’s no God (scratch point 1). Perhaps, if we don’t dig too deep, the naturalist would agree with the Christian that this world is both glorious in one sense and miserable in another (which gets close to point 2), but they completely deny point 3, saying we’re not the image bearers of God (afterall, there is no God!) Therefore human beings do not have inherent worth, nor are we sinners (because there’s no divine law to break.)