Presuppositional apologetics is a form of Christian apologetics, largely Calvinist that asserts that the acceptance of the proposition "God exists" and the truth of the Christian Bible is necessary for making the world intelligible. Presuppositional apologetics usually hinges on the rejection of Thomist apologetics, which attempt to establish logical proofs for the existence of god. The Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG) is often considered a claim of presuppositional apologetics.
There are generally two branches of presuppositional apologetics: Van Tillian presuppositionalism and Clarkian presuppositionalism, attributed to their namesakes, Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark.
Basic Forms and Principles
Van Tillian Presuppositionalism
Van Tillian presuppositionalists accept that the Bible is the arbiter of truth and error, and that all knowledge claims must be given Biblical justification. They cannot be known independently of the Bible. They often grant that certain statements generally accepted as "foundational" are true, they refuse the condition that such statements are "foundational". The only foundational presupposition is the truth of the Bible.
- Skeptic: Is modus ponens the case?
- VT Apologist: Of course modus ponens is the case. It is one of the most important rules of logic.
- Skeptic: But isn't modus ponens, given its standing as a rule of logic, foundational?
- VT Apologist: No. Only the Bible is foundational. Modus ponens can be used to check the coherence of other propositions with the truth of the Bible.
Van Tillian presuppositionalism also hinges on a distinction between proof and persuasion where there can be conclusive proofs of the existence of God that are not persuasive, because the skeptic rejects the epistemological framework necessary to those proofs.
Van Til, in particular, was active in advocating Platonic epistemology as the only epistemology that is Biblically defensible. Platonic epistemology is no longer taken as a serious consideration among most contemporary epistemologists and logicians. The primary, difference, though, is that while Plato's epistemology is foundationalist, it espouses a different foundation that Van Til's. Van Til operates with the truth of the Bible and its propositions as foundational, while Plato (and, later, Aristotle and neo-Platonists) advocates knowledge of the forms as the foundational form of knowledge. For Van Til, the forms are secondary to the belief in God and the truth of the Bible, and the justification for the existence of the forms is predicated on whatever evidence exists for them in the Biblical texts.
Van Til, himself, popularized a version of TAG based on the role of the reciprocal relationships of the ontological trinity. There is some confusion about the exact structure of the argument, as it varied throughout Van Til's own writing. However, the traditional formulation is that the reciprocal relationships of the Trinity, being higher order relationships that exist outside of a relationship to the physical world, are the fundamental basis for logical relationships, and so reason is contingent on the existence of the Trinity. This is a particularly odd series of arguments, and is one of the bases for Van Til's version of presuppositionalism, because it allows for the Biblical account of God to be foundational for the laws of logic, instead of allowing the laws of logic to be primitive. This version of the argument is problematic, because the relationship between entities is a synthetic statement (pet Kant) while the laws of logic are analytic statements.
Clark treated the truth of the Bible as the axiom of a logical system. Clarkian presuppositionalism then asserts that the worldview that results from the acceptance of the axiom can be tested for consistency and comprehensiveness. Clark is committed to the possibility of demonstrating that there are no discrepancies or contradictions which can be produced by accepting the Bible as true, and embraces the possibility of using formal logic as a method for testing the propositions in order to ensure this. This approach usually draws criticism from Van Tillian presuppositionalists, because they regard the use of formal logic that is being embraced as an eschewal of presuppositionalism, generally, as it seems to cede that logic is natural. Because Clark viewed the axioms of predicate logic, and Platonic epistemology, as fully derivable from the Bible, the issue is really one of establishing the consistency and coherence of the text, in order to ensure that all derivable propositions are non-contradictory.
Critique from Un-Falsifiability
One critique of presuppositional apologetics is that it is committed to the claim "God exists" being true; however, because it asserts that the existence of God is necessary for any belief to be intelligible, it is not possible to falsify the claim. The exchange looks something like this:
- Skeptic: What would have to be the case for you to reject the belief that God exist?
- Apologist: There isn't anything, because my ability to know anything is conditioned on God existing in the first place. If there were conditions such that God didn't exist, then I wouldn't be able to comprehend God existing, or not existing, or any belief.
The move is a reversion to the belief being primitive. The concern is greater, though, when it comes to the belief about the truth of the Bible. If it is the case that the Bible makes claims which are empirically verifiable, and those claims are not verified upon investigation, then there are some serious concerns regarding whether the empirical methods are to be dispensed with. This is similar to the issue of whether the Bible produces logical contradictions; in Clarkian presuppositionalism, this is regarded as being a serious problem.
Critique from Modal Logic
One critique of presuppositional apologetics is that it makes a non-tautological existential claim (i.e. 'God exist') primitive. It is generally accepted, in logic, that only universal claims and tautological claims can be primitive.
In modal logic, existential claims about logical possibilities (like 'God exists') are generally believed to be true in at least one possible world and false in some other possible world. Because they are generally accepted as being false in some possible world, they are not considered necessary truths. Only necessary truths can be primitive.
Critique from the Canon
There is a common concern with the acceptance of the Bible as primitive, as the text has shifted a great over the years, and the method for assessing whether or not the texts that exist in the current form are considered an adequate representation of either the traditions of the early Church or a reasonable representation of the events that they purport to recount. One of the major issues in this case is the concern over the omission of additional sources from the Biblical Canon. Because presuppositionalist are, generally, protestants, there are some concerns about whether the authority of the early Church extended to the inclusion or exclusion of texts from the Bible. While this is generally an argument amongst Christians, who tend to have misgivings about papal authority, there can be a sharp point made by skeptics.
This is colloquially referred to as the "Which Bible?" argument. Because presuppositionalists believe acceptance of the Bible is primitive, there is some concern about whether or not they can have a non-Biblical justification for accepting the version of the Bible that they do.
This argument is supposed to put the presuppositionalist in a dilemma: Any reference to the Bible in justifying the use of a particular version of the Bible is question begging and any admission that there is a non-Biblical reason for choosing a particular version of the Bible requires the presuppositionalist to give up the Bible as foundational, as such a justification constitutes an alternate foundation.
One common move out of this is to defer to divine revelation, which requires a move to another series of arguments, including whether or not the reliability of the subjects experience is already predicated on the existence of a God who would reveal himself through divine revelation, in order to establish another possible instance of question begging.
List of Presuppositional Theologians
Cornelius Van Til - Gordon Clark - Greg Bahnsen - John Frame - Rousas John Rushdoony - Francis Schaeffer - Douglas Wilson