My cousin linked me to this article on the “Brothers of John the Steadfast” Lutheran blog the other day which deals with the difference between Evidential and Presuppositional apologetics – and why Evidential apologetics is better and “more Lutheran”. I really do think it deserves a response from a Lutheran who takes the Presuppositional approach, and being as I am that… here we are.
Now, it’s important to define our terms when we talk about Evidential and Presuppositional apologetics.
Evidential apologetics: this is an approach which appeals to a “common ground” of logical reasoning and factual knowledge to build a case for the Christian faith.
Presuppositional apologetics: this is an approach which holds that an unbeliever must assume a Christian worldview from the outset in order to make knowledge or truth claims of any kind.
That’s it in a nutshell. There is certainly more to it than that, but this is where Google comes in handy to the uninitiated. Essentially, what I want to do from here is flesh out the Presuppositional position a bit more in this post, and then interact with Pastor Schuldheisz’s article in a second post (part 2). Along the way I will certainly be making clear why I, personally, think that Presuppositional apologetics is the true Biblical, and, ergo, “Lutheran” approach.
I’ve noticed that the Presuppositional approach is caricatured a lot (used to do it myself before I studied it more deeply), so here’s my attempt to make sure we all understand the thing as it is.
Firstly let me establish that Presuppositional apologetics is not opposed to using evidence in defense of the faith. That is a popular misconception, but untrue all the same. Please remove all elements of some presupposition vs. evidence false dichotomy from the table here. Evidence is extremely important and useful, in it’s proper place, but that is not where the Evidential approach puts it.
Pastor Schuldheisz cites Cornelius Van Til in his article, and what he cites is worth reading and understanding. Van Til is arguing that, epistemologically, the believer and the non-believer look at the world through radically different “glasses”, i.e. their presuppositions about reality. This impacts everything they see – much as wearing red colored glasses would paint your entire field of vision red. As a result, any evidential “input” requires an “output” consistent with the presuppositions – the “glasses” – that the individual interpreting them wears. Presuppositions dictate how the “facts” that a person observes are interpreted, acting as a filter against interpretations of the facts that would contradict the worldview of the person to whom they belong.
So, for example, the fact of an empty tomb. A Christian looks at that through believing presuppositions (Holy-Spirit equipped “glasses”) and says: “Praise God, who raised Jesus from the dead!” An unbeliever looks at it through unbelieving presuppositions (the Old Adam’s rejection of God) and says: “Huh, somebody moved the body” or “he must have swooned on the cross and woken up in the tomb” or, even accepting the resurrection, “huh, strange things happen sometimes.” What makes the difference at this stage isn’t the evidence, it’s the presuppositions of the folks interpreting the evidence.
This being the case, any idea of there being sufficient “common ground” with an unbeliever when it comes to interpreting the evidence where we try to prove God without appealing to God is faulty at the outset. Dr. Greg Bahnsen called this the “myth of neutrality” and says regarding this topic:
As Van Til labored to teach throughout his career…, there simply is no presupposition-free and neutral way to approach reasoning, especially reasoning about the fundamental and philosophically momentous issues of God’s existence and revelation. To formulate proofs for God that assume otherwise is not only foolish and futile, from a philosophical perspective, but also unfaithful to the Lord. Reasoning is a God-given gift to man, but it does not grant him any independent authority. The Christian concept of God takes Him to be the highest and absolute authority, even over man’s reasoning: such a God could not be proved to exist by some other standard as the highest authority in one’s reasoning. That would be to assume the contrary of what you are seeking to prove.
– Dr. Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (as quoted in Pushing the Antithesis, italics original)
That said, the Presuppositional approach is one that recognizes that the issue is not (at root) one of evidence or lack thereof, but rather takes into account that – unless the heart is changed from stone to flesh – the unbeliever will continue to impose his unbelieving presuppositions upon any and all evidence that is offered, interpreting it in accord with his worldview.
Dr. Montgomery himself provides a splendid example of this in his dialogue with Thomas J. Altizer (as citing in the foreword of Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Pushing the Antithesis):
Once upon a time there was a man who thought he was dead. His concerned wife and friends sent him to the friendly neighborhood psychiatrist. The psychiatrist determined to cure him by convincing him of one fact that contradicted his belief that he was dead. The psychiatrist decided to use the simple truth that dead men do not bleed. He put his patient to work reading medical texts, observing autopsies, etc. After weeks of effort the patient finally said, “All right, all right! You’ve convinced me! Dead men do not bleed.” Whereupon the psychiatrist stuck him in the arm with a needle, and the blood flowed. The man looked down and contorted, ashen faced, and cried: “Good Lord! Dead men bleed after all!”
This too is the mind of an unbeliever, who, rather than face the certainty that God is there, would prefer to take the fact of the empty tomb and interpret it in a way that does not conflict with his existing worldview, driven by his presuppositions. (need more proof of how this works? see here)
Now, how does the Presuppositional apologetic deal with the presupposition that there is no God? How can one address such a case of invincible ignorance? Quite simply: by pointing out that the unbeliever is in all reality not ignorant at all.
You see, even though there is no neutral common ground upon which to stand and offer evidence to the nonbeliever, there is still a “point of contact” available to the apologist. That is, the irrevocable knowledge – be it expressed (Christian) or suppressed (unbeliever) – that we are creatures who have a Creator, namely 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.
– Romans 1:18-20
The unbeliever proves he believes God is there every time he argues about morality, science, even argument itself! All of these things depend upon the precondition of intelligibility – namely, God – in order to even be rational absolute concepts. You have to have God, or they don’t work. Let’s take logic, since that is what concerns us in this immediate context.
Logic – immaterial, universal, absolute laws – has its grounds in God, being a reflection of His nature. Think about it, in the modern naturalistic materialist paradigm, the material universe is all that exists, which means that logic is simply a property of the universe. But change is also a property of the universe, and therefore the laws of logic are subject to change. Right? And yet this is not a position an unbeliever can hold, or else he forfeits all knowledge and truth claims that can be arrived at through logic, including the logical conclusion that he must forfeit all truth claims because logic is subject to change. In the end, the unbelieving worldview collapses in a quivering mass of futility.
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 1:21-22
The Presuppositional apologist seeks to point out that, as long as the unbeliever is trying to approach evidence or argue with logic, he is borrowing a Christian worldview and proving that, at the very core, he presupposes God. We do not let the unbeliever assume our worldview and then use it to attack the very ground upon which we stand, but instead we hold him accountable for using the logic that his own professed worldview cannot account for. The Presuppositional approach is designed to call the unbeliever’s bluff that he “just needs more evidence” to believe in the God he already knows is there. To do otherwise is to grant the unbeliever’s premise of autonomy (of thinking, of reasoning, of living) and to implicitly call into question what the Bible claims when it says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” Proverbs 1:7 or again, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Proverbs 9:10
On that note, it is worth citing a portion of Van Til that Pastor Schuldheisz didn’t quote:
Historical apologetics is absolutely necessary and indispensable to point out that Christ arose from the grave etc. But as long as historical apologetics works on a supposedly neutral basis, it defeats its own purpose. For in that case it virtually grants the validity of the metaphysical assumptions of the unbeliever.
– Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology,p. 242)
That is to say, evidence is nice, but it requires a worldview built of presuppositions about the nature of what exists – i.e. God’s creation or random chance universe. The Christian and the unbelieving worldviews are antithetical to one another to the point where “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets,” (that is, about the earth being the Lord’s and the fullness thereof), “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” – even if this could be “proven” to them “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
In closing, then, the core of the Presuppositional approach is this:
We do not see the apologist’s job as moving someone from unbelief to faith, this is the Holy Spirit’s job. Our aim is not one of opening hearts (indeed, we cannot), but rather of closing mouths. We want the unbeliever to come to a place where to say nothing is better than to speak at all, for without God even his own words have no meaning in themselves. We want them to see that they are ἀναπολογήτους, without an apologetic (i.e. a defense, as per Romans 1:20), for their rejection of God. At that point it is up to the Holy Spirit to work new life in them according to His will and mercy to draw them to the Truth, who is the grounds for all truth, Jesus Christ. Without that, there is no trumpet loud enough – no evidence “obvious” enough – to get through to the unbeliever who is dead in his sins.
I wish I thought I could say more above about the Presuppositional approach to apologetics and its implications, because I’ve only just scratched the surface, but I think I’ve set the stage enough to interact with Pastor Schuldheisz’s post in a meaningful fashion. For further information on Presuppositional Apologetics I’d encourage you to watch this introductory lecture series by Sye Ten Bruggencate, here, here, and here.