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On Presuppositionalism

A. E. Wright

Christian apologetics have always fascinated me. When I was younger and Christian, I did my sixth grade book report on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and told my teacher that I wanted to be a theologian in order to "defend the faith." I would eagerly read about the intellectual lives of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and how the wisdom of Tolkien helped turned Lewis from reprobate to righteous. I saw Josh McDowell speak at my school, and went to hear his son and prominent anti-evolutionist Sean McDowell speak at my church. I've seen Ravi Zacharias, Jay Richards, O. S. Guinness, and several others in person; and I've spent the last eight years watching videos of just about every other apologist as well. While it began during my days as a Christian, my interest in Christian apologetics has not lessened since I left the faith. Now, as I pursue my master's degree in philosophy, I find myself just as interested in Christian apologetics as I was when I first learned about it.

If you are unaware of the context, "apologetics" (from the Greek, apologia) is a term used to describe the systematic intellectual defense of something—in this case the Christian religion. Christian apologetics is usually practiced with reference to 1 Peter 3:15, which states:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

This verse has given rise to a number of different apologetic disciplines and arguments, from classical to contemporary. Here, however, I aim to write in response to a particular brand of apologetics that has been increasingly visible to me—both in the online debate communities that I follow and in my actual, in-person community of Arizona.[1] I write in order to critically reflect on this most misguided form of Christian apologetics. I am writing on presuppositionalism.

Presuppositionalism: Its Origins and Definition

"Presuppositionalism" is the name of the brand of apologetics that mostly began with the works of 20th-century theologian Cornelius Van Til, but it has since developed into different forms under the auspices of some notable, and some unnotable, thinkers. In order to best represent presuppositionalism, I will let some of its most eminent proponents explain it to you. Once I give the brief overview of the presuppositionalist perspective, I will explore it more deeply during the refutation. In his short book, Why I Believe in God, Cornelius Van Til writes:

Now, in fact, I feel that the whole of history and civilization would be unintelligible to me if it were not for my belief in God. So true is this, that I propose to argue that unless God is back of everything, you cannot find meaning in anything. I cannot even argue for belief in Him, without already having taken Him for granted. And similarly I contend that you cannot argue against belief in Him unless you also first take Him for granted. Arguing about God's existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time. Or to use another illustration, God is like the emplacement on which must stand the very guns that are supposed to shoot Him out of existence.[2]

So, according to Van Til, just like one must tacitly accept the existence of air before engaging in a discussion about the reality of air, one must accept the existence of God before engaging in a discussion about the rationality of belief in God. Here we see where the name presuppositionalism comes from: in order to have any meaningful conversation about reality, we must presuppose the existence of the only thing that can give true meaning to reality, and that is nothing less than God. (Which god? That's another question.)

This seems rather incredible. The starting point of this "philosopher" is the very conclusion that he seeks to demonstrate as true? Well, yes, but it is not quite as stupid as it appears; in fact, it's a rather clever move. Let's let another famous voice add to the discussion. C.S. Lewis, the patron saint of Protestantism, evinced some quasi-presuppositionalist sensibilities when he said:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.[3]

While Lewis and Van Til do not share identical theologies, the general presuppositionalist principle here is the same. Both thinkers are using the consequences of their belief to validate the belief itself, and this, at least at the outset, has precedent in the history of thought. Each of these thinkers is adopting a model-dependent view of reality, wherein a model is tentatively adopted, and, depending on how well the data seen fit those predicted by the model, the model is either discarded or kept. The problem, however, is that not only do the data of the world not fit the model (i.e., Christianity), but a number of assumptions and mistakes are made that render the presuppositionalist assumption invalid. Here I will focus on the second of these two problem areas, as it is unique to the presuppositionalist position, and it is more than sufficient to expose the flimsiness and lack of rigor of the presuppositionalist framework. The following critique is by no means meant as a complete examination of presuppositionalist thought; it consists of concise rebuttals to the most reoccurring and essential presuppositionalist claims.

The Problems with Presuppositionalism

In debates between presuppositionalist apologists and nonbelievers, presuppositionalists will make a number of claims and deploy a number of argument tactics that deserve consideration. If this were a few years ago, I might say that there was nothing positive within this system of thought—that it was all pernicious, irrational, Christian myth-mongering. As a softer atheist than I once was, I can happily point out those things that are understandingly tempting about this apologetic.

1. Presuppositionalist Arrogance

Firstly, presuppositionalists, from Van Til to the YouTube apologists, work very hard to use their questions to reduce other people's worldviews to confusion and absurdity. As someone who deeply values any effort that illuminates the fraudulence of certainty, I can find value here. Many people have not truly thought rigorously about the underpinnings and implications of their positions, and when a pugnacious presuppositionalist relentlessly hurls questions like "But how do you know that this is true?", "How can you trust your senses?", "How can you explain the uniformity of the universe?", and so on, even sensible people can realize how little they actually know. This has value. The problem, however, is that unlike the noble elenchus of Socrates, the litany of presuppositionalist questions does not begin from a place of humble ignorance in order to shed light on the ignorance of others; it begins from a place of boastful metaphysical certainty and attempts to employ that certainty as a tool against the justified uncertainty of the open-minded. I cannot praise the presuppositionalists for their attempts to reveal ignorance when they refuse to see it in themselves (I recall something about a log in an eye...).

2. Term Confusion

Presuppositionalists—like Sye Ten Bruggencate in the excerpts from his debate with Matt Dillahunty[4]—get considerable mileage out of some variation of the following questions:

How can you proceed with rational thought if you don't even know the fundamentals? Is there absolute truth? No? Do you know this to be true? Are you absolutely certain? You don't know this to be sure? Well, if you've just admitted that you can't know it, how can you know anything at all? Why should we even listen to you anymore if you've just admitted you can't know anything?

So, the problem here is that "knowledge" is a tricky term that has received considerable philosophical work ever since Plato's Theaetetus, in which even Socrates was unable to reach an ironclad understanding of the word. The presuppositionalists, on the other hand, toss and twirl and bend this word in countless ways in order to bolster their arguments. I need not adopt their perspective of knowledge as "mathematical certainty" (although there is much equivocation here and the term seems to shift) in order to make rational and sensible arguments. I'm comfortable with varying degrees of probability, and the presuppositionalist has no monopoly on the term "knowledge." I have yet to hear either a consistent use of the word "knowledge" in their arguments, or a cogent reason given for why they demand absolute certainty in the definition.

3. The Notion that there are "no True Atheists."

Presuppositionalists like to engage in a particularly obnoxious debate tactic where they claim that all professed disbelief is an act of sinful repression of the truth that all people know deep down—that God exists. Usually they allude to Psalms 14:1, which says:

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

Presuppositionalists trot out this bible verse ad nauseum in order to support their contention that there are no true atheists. But this verse, as the late eminent philosopher Michael Martin points out, is interpreted more convincingly in the opposite way:

Here it is seems clear that the Bible is saying that there are atheists but they are fools. It certainly implies that the fool does not just profess atheism since he says there is no God in his heart. The fool really believes it. This passage was used by St. Anselm in his notorious Ontological Argument and Anselm's reading supports my interpretation. Anselm argued that the fool's denial of God was not conceivable; that is, it was inconsistent, since a Being such that no greater being can be conceived must exist. Anselm was not saying that the fool was not an atheist. Rather he was saying that atheistic belief is inconsistent.[5]

As Martin demonstrates, it is unlikely that the Psalms verse can serve the purpose for which the presuppositionalists use it. The presuppositionalist may use other verses, however, such as Romans 1:19, which states:

...because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.

This verse seems to suggest the opposite—that God has made his truth evident to all. The Bible, of course, is completely inconsistent in this as in many other areas. My point, however, is that even if it were scripturally consistent that God does not believe in atheists (a point of serious contention), that would not imply any further truth about the claim.

This denial of the reality of atheism is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick, but it has an implication that interests me; namely, that it can be reversed in a powerful way. Try this: when confronted with this psychological accusation, simply parody the presuppositionalist tactic framed in the opposite way. Here is my suggestion:

Listen, you all know that there are no gods and that mortal death is the end of our experience. You know it. It's a deep, instinctual fact that is written in the strands of our DNA. It's a biological and evolutionary fact that all animals know; some just repress this fact out of a lust for life and a fear of death. But deep down, we all know that the end is the end and that these fantasies that humankind has constructed to give meaning and allay our fears and help impose social harmony are just that: fantasies. There are no actual Christians—just naturalists in denial.

I've gotten some flustered faces in response to this one, and it is a simple way to show the dishonesty and absurdity of this tactic. But let's move onto the most serious objection raised here.

With these minor issues addressed, I now want to hone in on the essence of the presuppositionalist apologetic. These claims and tactics are the bread and butter of the presuppositionalist interlocutor, and only when they are dealt with will the central flaws of the presuppositionalist position be apparent.

4. The Transcendental Argument for God's Existence

a. The False Equivalence

The assumption that there exists an omnibenevolent, omnipresent, omnipotent, noncorporeal, and personal being that exists outside of space-time and can, through unknown mechanisms, exert influence upon it, is the starting point of presuppositionalist theology. Presuppositionalists justify this starting point by noting that all systems of knowledge rest on presuppositions of some sort. The utilitarians, for example, may justify their ethical system by claiming that those actions that "produce the greatest good for the greatest number" are ethical, but they are resting this on the fundamental assumption that "the greatest good" is, well, "good." Similarly, scientists who establish some truth about reality through testing and experimentation must explain why it is that we should respect the outcome of experiments. Why should we trust our senses at all? These are but a few of the many inborn assumptions that all bodies of knowledge entail, and the presuppositionalists claim that their position is no different; they assume the truth of God in order to proceed in any rational, meaningful way. This comparison is fundamentally flawed for the following reason: the statement that "all knowledge claims rest on a set of fundamental assumptions" is not tantamount to saying "all assumptions are equally valid." The assumption of the existence of the Christian God can hardly be placed alongside the humble logical assumption that A is not non-A.

The presuppositionalist tries to use the necessity of assumptions to justify their initial assumption, but the type of assumptions that exist in other realms of inquiry are not shown to be equivalent to the assumption of the existence of the almighty Christian godhead. Their argument, however, does not stop there. As Van Til showed earlier, presuppositionalists do not merely claim that they are justified in making an assumption of God; they claim that such an assumption is logically necessary in order to proceed in any rational way whatsoever. This is what is known as the transcendental argument for God (TAG).

b. The Assumption of Disorder

TAG claims that in order to justify the fundamental logical and ethical elements of the universe, one must presuppose the existence of God. Without God, no sense can be made of anything, they claim. This claim is highly controversial and mostly unsupported by even the majority of the theological and apologetics community, and has been adequately dispatched of by, you guessed it, Michael Martin. In fact, Martin wrote quite powerfully in his Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God that the converse argument is actually much more cogent—that all knowledge, logic, and morality rest on the fundamental assumption that God does not exist.

My goal here is not to evaluate TAG in its entirety, although I believe that it is a specious argument. My goal is to address one small aspect of TAG that I have seen arise in multiple debate forums—namely, the assumption of disorder.

Presuppositionalists often appeal to the "order of the universe" as something for which nonbelievers cannot account. Why is the universe ordered? Why does math make sense? Why is the future like the past? The presuppositionalist employs these questions in order to dizzy the nonbeliever and force them to account for the fundamental harmonies of the universe. This, being (among other things) a mutation of classic teleological arguments for God's existence, has a variety of solutions. But the simplest answer to the presuppositionalists who pose these questions is to ask another question: why assume that the universe needs the ordering influence of a deity? Presuppositionalists assume that the universe should naturally be disordered and chaotic, and that the extant harmonies require explanations that are not available to those without belief in a timeless creator deity. This is a mistake. Why is the inherent orderliness and sensibility of the universe any less plausible than its inherent chaos and irrationality? The presuppositionalists have no answer. There are two implicit claims here that ought to be separated out:

  1. Since the universe has degrees of order, uniformity, and morality, and since reliance on fundamental methods like induction and the laws of logic "work," God must exist.
  2. The order, uniformity, and morality of the universe, along with the laws of logic and induction, are not to be expected and demand explanation.

#1 is the larger, central claim of TAG that I believe has been handedly dealt with by Martin, whereas #2 is the smaller claim that I refer to as the assumption of disorder. I have yet to encounter an explanation for why it is that presuppositionalists believe that a "disordered universe," whatever that looks like, is a natural condition to be expected, while an "ordered" universe is in some way anomalous and in need of further justification.

In order to make these claims about the logical necessity of the assumption of God, presuppositionalists employ one final tool, and it is arguably their most essential and most bothersome one. They appeal to what they call a "revelational epistemology."

5. The Problem of the "Revelational Epistemology"

Presuppositionalists appeal to what they call a revelational epistemology as the very pillar of their belief system. This means that their epistemology—their justification for how they know what they know—is achieved through revelation from God. The term harkens back to the 16th-century Protestant reformers John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Huldrych Zwingli; they felt that all believers had revealed truth from God that provided more certainty than rational arguments. Presuppositionalists claim that the infallibility of Scripture, the testament of the universe around them (general revelation), and the direct and private communication that God has had with them (special revelation) provides them with a privileged absolute certainty about certain important things.

This claim is the bedrock of the presuppositionalist position; it is the standard by which presuppositionalists believe that they are able to measure and judge the truth of the world around them; and it is the absence of this revelational epistemology that they believe reduces the nonbeliever's worldview to absurdity. Through their revelational epistemology, they believe that they have access to truth that grounds them and allows them to rationally interpret and judge information gathered by the senses and evaluated through reason. But human reason and the senses do not have primacy here; they can only make sense in the light of the standard of ultimate certainty provided by revelation. As it turns out, this central claim is unable to hold up to some of the simplest scrutiny.

I have not yet heard a coherent presuppositionalist response to the following questions: How is it that you know that you have received revelation from God? How do you know that it was not Descartes' demon that deceived you into thinking that it came from God? How do you know that you are not insane?

These questions, if answered honestly, would require the presuppositionalist to employ sensory tools such as "I heard God's voice" or rationalistic tools such as "I knew it wasn't a demon because it said something perfect and holy, and a demon would, by definition, spew evil." The presuppositionalist has pushed back his epistemological justification one degree further than the nonbeliever; but when that further justification is questioned, the edifice crumbles all the same. This all reminds me of the behavior of young children when they play the "why game"—endlessly posing the question "why" in response to each explanation in order to irritate and confound. As it turns out, everyone has trouble answering a series of "whys"; and even though presuppositionalists believe that by appealing to "revelational epistemology" they have somehow won the game, it turns out that they have merely passed the buck over to a god that they still can't account for. "Revelational epistemology" lends the presuppositionalist position no explanatory power whatsoever, and they return to the same playing field as everybody else.

Final Reflections

I once heard a prominent presuppositionalist pastor speak about the "nuclear strength" of the presuppositionalist position. To him, and to the many who have felt persuaded by presuppositionalist apologetics, presuppositionalism is a powerful and effective defense. It offers those who adopt it a feeling of certainty that is both argumentatively expedient and personally gratifying. It gives them the feeling of having their feet planted on firm ground while others shift in the sands of uncertainty. I agree that this apologetic system is nuclear, but I think a more apt description is "radioactive."

Presuppositionalism eschews the rigor of classic defenses of the faith in favor of cheap debate tricks and arguments that are as feeble as they are irritating. What's more, presuppositionalists use their false sense of certainty to prey on the honorable uncertainty that open-mindedness and intellectual honesty entail. Presuppositionalist dogmatism is not only logically unwarranted, but politically dangerous. The level of certainty in presuppositionalist theology is precisely the kind that is most dangerous to a democratic society. With a quick examination of some of the more popular presuppositionalist YouTube channels, you will find doctorates arguing for theocracy, Dominionism, and political positions so misguided and insidious that they put the Falwells to shame. Presuppositionalism, and all of its theological and political implications, poses a direct threat to constitutional democracy; it espouses the dangerous view that dogmatic certainty and mental rigidity are virtues, and it gives fuel to fractious thinking over compromise. But, beyond all of this, it's also simply wrong.

Presuppositionalism was an interesting idea and a novel tactic; Van Til must have felt so emboldened when he thought that he had unearthed a robust defense of the faith. However, Van Til—and all of those pastors, theologians, and professors who have accepted and developed his thought—made no progress in strengthening Christian theism against its debunking by 20th- and 21st-century critical inquiry. In fact, presuppositionalism appears to be a tacit admittance of philosophical defeat, a timorous retreat to blatant fideism concealed by a fancier name and some sophistry thrown in for good measure. The presuppositionalist sees the danger that classical apologetics faces in the wake of the advancement of science, philosophy, and mathematics, and so has retreated to somewhere novel—somewhere where he thinks he will be safe. The fact is, nowhere is safe. My advice to presuppositionalists is this: roll up your sleeves, put your shoulders back, and get to work on something new; presuppositionalism has no answer to any question worth asking.


[1] One prominent presuppositionalist apologist from Arizona is James White, who has posted his lectures on YouTube.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe In God (Philadelphia, PA: Great Commission Publications, n.d.).

[3] C. S. Lewis, "Is Theology Poetry?" in The Weight of Glory ed. C. S. Lewis (London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1942), pp. 91-92.

[4] The full debate between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty can also be found on YouTube.

[5] Michael Martin, "Are There Really No Atheists?" (1996) on The Secular Web. See also Martin's overview of TAG in his "Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God?" (1997) and his "Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God" (TANG) in the Martin-Frame Debate on the Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God.

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