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Presuppositional apologetics is the apologetic system that defends Christianity from the departure point of certain basic presuppositions. The apologist presupposes the truth of Christianity and then reasons from that point. One basic presupposition is that the non-Christian also has presuppositions that color everything he or she hears about God. Another is that in some fashion the person encountered is, as Augustine said, “doing business” with God and, as Romans 1 puts it so damningly, suppressing knowledge of the truth. It is the apologist’s role to present the truth of Christianity and the falsehood of any worldview opposed to Christ.
Differences from Other Methods. Presuppositional apologetics is opposed to evidentialism and classical apologetics. Presuppositional apologetics differs from classical apologetics in that presuppositional apologetics rejects the validity of traditional proofs for the existence of God. Further, the presuppositional apologist differs with both classical and historical apologetics in its use of historical evidence. The historical apologist, in agreement with the classical apologist, argues in favor of beginning with reason and evidence to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. The presuppositionalist, on the other hand, insists that one must begin with presuppositions or worldviews. The historical apologist believes that the historical facts “speak for themselves.” They are “self-interpreting” in their historical context. The pure presuppositionalist, on the other hand, insists that no facts are self-interpreting, that all facts are interpreted and can be properly understood only within the context of an overall worldview.
Several Kinds of Presuppositionalism. Depending on how one is defined, there are three or four basic kinds of presuppositionalism: (1) revelational presuppositionalism; (2) rational presuppositionalism; and (3) systematic consistency. Some view Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic as an example of a fourth variation that might be called practical presuppositionalism. Each approach differs in the way in which a worldview is judged for truth.
Revelational Presuppositionalism. According to revelational presuppositionalism, one must begin any rational understanding of truth by presupposing the truth of the Christian faith. One must posit that the Triune God has revealed himself in Holy Scriptures, the divinely authoritative Word of God. Without this presupposition one cannot make any sense out of the universe, life, language, history, or anything else. This kind of argument is sometimes viewed as a transcendental argument, that is, an argument that begins by laying down the necessary conditions under which every other kind of knowledge is possible. These necessary conditions posit that the Triune God has revealed himself in Holy Scriptures.
Rational Presuppositionism. This is the apologetics system of the late Gordon Clark and his noted disciple Carl F. H. Henry. Like other presuppositionalists, the rational presuppositionalist begins with the Trinity revealed in the written Word of God. But the test for whether this is true is simply the law of noncontradiction. That is, one knows that Christianity is true and all opposing systems are false because all of them have internal contradictions and only Christianity is internally consistent. Thus, a rational principle, the law of noncontradiction, is used as the test for truth.
Systematic Consistency. John Carnell and his disciple, Gordon Lewis, developed a presuppositionalism that has two (or three) tests for the truth of the Christian presupposition. Like rational presuppositionalists, they believe a system must be rationally consistent. But in addition, they hold that the system must comprehensively include all the facts. Later in his life Carnell added a third test—existential relevance. The system must meet life’s basic needs. The only system, they believe, that measures up to all three is Christianity. Thus, Christianity is true and all other opposing systems are false.
Practical Presuppositionalism. Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic approach has also been listed by many as presuppositional. If so, it is a practical presuppositionalism. One of its chief features is that all non-Christian systems are unlivable. Only Christian truth is livable. In this sense, it uses unlivability as a test for the falsity of non-Christian systems and livability as a test for the truth of Christianity.
Conclusion. Presuppositional apologetics has been criticized from many quarters. Classical apologetics has challenged its rejection of traditional proofs for the existence of God. Historical apologetics has defended the neutral nature of historical facts. Others have noted the fideistic nature of revelational presuppositionalism and rejected it for this reason. Since each system is critiqued under the article on its chief proponent, attention is directed to the articles on Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, and John Carnell.
- J. Carnell, Introduction to Christian Apologetics
- G. H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation
- G. Lewis, Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims
- F. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There
- C. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith
By Norman L. Geisler
Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 607–608.