Presuppositional apologetics

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One common move out of this is to defer to divine [[revelation]]. This tactic abandons presuppositional apologetics entirely because it uses the Bible or God is axiomatic.
One common move out of this is to defer to divine [[revelation]]. This tactic abandons presuppositional apologetics entirely because it uses the Bible or God is axiomatic.
One of the major omission of presuppositional apologetics is that it does not explained how a single holy book or divine entity can provide the necessary basis for justify reason, knowledge or logic. At least some other presuppositions are required to make these intelligible.
====Critique from the canon: which Bible?====
====Critique from the canon: which Bible?====

Revision as of 11:58, 5 July 2014

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Presuppositional apologetics is a form of Christian apologetics, primarily in the Calvinist tradition, that asserts that the acceptance of either the proposition "God exists" or the Biblical inerrancy is necessary in order for the world to be intelligible. Presuppositional apologetics typically rejects Thomist apologetics, which accepts the rules of logic prior to arguing for the existence of God. There are two historically distinct branches of presuppositional apologetics: Van Tillian presuppositionalism and Clarkian presuppositionalism, attributed to their namesakes, Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark.

"[We] should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion to an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible (...)"

John Frame [1]
"The battle is not over evidence but over philosophical starting points: presuppositions. As Christians, we should never put away our axiom—the Bible—when discussing truth with others. This would be like a soldier going into battle without any armor or weapons. [2]"
"By demonstrating that unbelievers can not argue, think, or live without presupposing God, presuppositionalists try to show unbelievers that their own worldview is inadequate to explain their experience of the world and to get unbelievers to see that Christianity alone can mkae [sic] sense of their experience. [3]"

The Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (TAG) is often considered a claim of presuppositional apologetics, though it is also used (in a somewhat different form) in Thomist apologetics. The argument has also associated with the claim that "Atheists know there is a God".


Basic Forms and Principles

Van Tillian Presuppositionalism

Van Tillian presuppositionalists accept that the Bible is the sole arbiter of whether a proposition is true or false; as a result, all knowledge claims must be given Biblical justification. They cannot be known independently of the Bible.

While it grants that the laws of logic and causality are true, it does not accept that they are foundational. Rather, it asserts that those propositions are true if and only if the truth of the Bible has been granted. In this argument, the basic laws of logic must be supported by Biblical justification, otherwise they are false.

Skeptic: Is the logical law of 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 engages a distinction between proof and persuasion. There can be conclusive proofs of the existence of God, through logic, however Van Til recognizes that many of these proofs are not pragmatically persuasive. Van Til asserts that this is because the skeptic rejects the epistemological framework (Platonic epistemology) necessary for the acceptance of those proofs. Van Til, in particular, was active in advocating Platonic epistemology as the only epistemology that is Biblically defensible.

Directly, Plato's epistemology differs from Van Til's in one very important respect: Plato does not accept the Bible as the foundation of his epistemology. For Plato, the Forms are foundational, and there is no text which can communicate the forms to individuals. For Van Til, the Forms are secondary to the belief in God and the truth of the Bible, and belief in the Forms is justified by the Bible.

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.

Presuppositional persuasive argument

While presuppositional apologetics is as much a system of belief as anything else, it is sometimes presented as an argument to non-believers as: [4]

  1. All we experience is grounded in the laws of logic.
  2. The Christian worldview alone adequately explains and accounts for the laws of logic.
  3. Therefore, all we experience cannot be explained or accounted for outside of the Christian worldview.

Since the second premise is disputed, the more fundamental form of the argument is:

  1. Logic (or reason or knowledge, depending on the variation used) requires justification.
  2. Atheists cannot provide a justification.
  3. Therefore, God did it.

Of course, there are multiple problems with this argument. Eric Hovind and Sye Ten Bruggencate have similar variants of this argument that they followed in a checklist/script fashion. Their fundamental aims are to question a non-believers basis for their reliance on reason and their senses, and then launch into the non sequitur that God or the Bible resolves the supposed difficulties. [5]

Clarkian Presuppositionalism

Clark treated the truth of the Bible as though it were the axiom of a logical system. Clark asserts that the worldview that results from the acceptance of the axiom can be tested for consistency and comprehensiveness. Clark is committed to 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. Because the Bible is foundational to a logical system, if it produces contradictions, then it must be rejected.

The idea that the Bible can be found to have contradictions draws some criticism from the Van Tillian branch, because they feel that the Bible should not be weighed against logical axioms. If an axiom is found to, hypothetically, demonstrate a contradiction within the Bible, then the problem is the axiom. Because Clark accepts that the laws of logic have bearing on falsifying the Bible, Van Tillian's often argue that this is not a genuine sort of presuppositionalism, and that it puts the laws of logic on the same foundational basis as the Bible.

Counter arguments

Begging the question

As a worldview, presuppositional apologetics is not persuasive since it assumes God as a premise. It is therefore begging the question or a circular argument.

"But are we not still forced to say, 'God exists (presupposition), therefore God exists (conclusion),' and isn't that argument clearly circular? Yes, in a way. [1]"
"If Scripture is the ultimate justification for all human knowledge, how should we justify our belief in Scripture itself? By Scripture, of course! [1]"

Apologists sometimes accept this accusation but then claim this specific premise is exempt by special pleading or the claim that all world views require presuppositions, so they are justified in this presupposition.

Logic does not require God

One main claim made by presuppositional apologists is that atheists can not account for their use of logic and, therefore, the theistic accounting for it is the best one.

"A philosophical rationalist, for instance, one who believes that human reason is the supreme arbiter of truth, must, ultimately, prove his point by appealing to human reason. [6]"

This is simply incorrect, logic is and always has been accounted for without invoking a creator or logic itself. Many conceptions of logic exists but one accounting based on psychologism (pioneered by John Stuart Mill and criticised by Gottlob Frege and others [7]) is as follows:

  1. Physical reality, experienced a posteriori through our senses and cognition, appears to fit certain patterns. Reality requires some subjective interpretation of phenomena for it fit into the schema of logical propositions. This enables us to seek for patterns in reality.
  2. We descriptively call the most fundamental patterns in reality as "the logical absolutes" of logic (the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, the law of excluded middle). The logical absolutes exist only in our minds. The logical absolutes are called this because they are useful in our reality. They are true in all possible universes but may be irrelevant in some universes that are unlike our own.
  3. The logical absolutes provide the basis for the formulation of other laws of formal logic. Certain usages of propositions are not consistent with the logical absolutes and are called logical fallacies. Logical laws may be formalised in an abstract system similar to mathematics. These laws of logic are indirectly related to our experience of reality but ultimately derive from it.

Alternatively, we can approach the problem in another direction and devise a system of logic a priori and attempt to validate it against our experience of reality. However, an arbitrary system of thought do not always fit our observation of reality. Testing a machine to see if the machine works is not circular but is common sense and, furthermore, I do not need to know where the machine came from in order for it to work; the same goes for logic. Either way, the established laws of logic are intrinsically tied to our perception of reality and validated against our experience.

In a sense, the origin of logic faces the problem of the Münchhausen trilemma. Apologists are trying to solve the conundrum using an argument from ignorance with the claim "God did it". A similar problem is the origin and "truth" of mathematics, which is sometimes considered objective and sometimes based on usefulness, "quasi-empiricalism" or psychologism. [8]

Isn't logic objective?

"If this were true, any group of people could, at any time, change the laws of logic within their group. [...] If logic were indeed just a set of conventions, it would not be testable. Life would be arbitrary, and there would be no universal rules of logic. [9]"

The laws of logic are often considered to be objective and axiomatically true. If they are dogmatically used as a premise, they can be treated as abstract and objectively true (this is allowed under the rules of logic). However, this dogmatic basis of argumentation does not automatically apply to conclusions about the real world, nor does it attempt to justify why that specific formulation was adopted rather than some other system of thought, which requires a subjective justification using psychologism. In short, as an abstract system of rules, logic is objective; but as a description of reality, logic is not objective.

Apologists sometimes try to equate the "objective laws of reality" with the laws of logic (which effectively reduces to the Natural-law argument). Even if the laws of reality exist objectively, they are distinct from our descriptive formulation of logic. The formulation used by humans may be specific to humans and possibly did not exist prior to humans.

Some argue that the abstract formulation exists independently of humans, rather like the Platonic concept of ideals. If this is the case, there are an infinite number of other formulations that are just as real (but do not happen to describe our world). To claim the laws of logic pre-exist and are some how significant is the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.

Arbitrarily using the Bible

Presuppositional apologetics arbitrarily assumes a particular Bible or a particular interpretation of God. However, this is an unjustified assumption. In the context of this argument, any other concept or book is seemingly as valid as the Bible. Any god or gods could be justified using arguments of this type.

One common move out of this is to defer to divine revelation. This tactic abandons presuppositional apologetics entirely because it uses the Bible or God is axiomatic.

One of the major omission of presuppositional apologetics is that it does not explained how a single holy book or divine entity can provide the necessary basis for justify reason, knowledge or logic. At least some other presuppositions are required to make these intelligible.

Critique from the canon: which Bible?

The critique from Canon expresses a problem when it comes to accepting the Bible, as the text has shifted 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 presuppositionalists 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.

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 for this claim to be found to be false. It is difficult to claim something is knowledge about reality and at the same for it to be unfalsifiable. 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 belief in God is considered a primitive by the apologist.

The Bible makes claims that are empirically falsifiable, and those claims are not verified upon investigation. If presuppositional apologetics are accepted, an implication is the invalidation of empirical methods, which is absurd. This is similar to the issue of whether the Bible produces logical contradictions; in Clarkian presuppositionalism, this is regarded as being a genuine problem.

Apologists claim absolute certainty for presuppositionalism, but psychology tells us there humans are always prone to error, both in perception and cognition. Therefore they are making an impossible claim. It is always possible for people to be wrong.

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 (all x are y) and tautological claims (some p is p) 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 at least one 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.

The argument is an attempt to prove a matter of fact using only abstract logic, however it is impossible to demonstrate any matter of fact by this method.

Special pleading

Main Article: Special pleading

The main thrust of presuppositional apologetics is that it attempts to lay a theocratic claim over all use of logic and rationality. Few presuppositionalists will make the claim that atheists are incapable of using logic, only that the atheist's use of it is baseless. Using this excuse, presuppositionalists ignore all questions placed before them. The apologist will admit, whole heartedly, that their argument is circular but will deem, what they view as, the atheist's circular argument as unacceptable because they have not invoked a deity in the process. Presuppositional apologetics is founded on defining God into existence and dogmatic claims:

"To be a presuppositionalist is to redefine the world in such a way that you cannot possibly be wrong and then congratulating yourself for being so right. It's not an argument fit for an intelligent honest person. It's an argument fit for a coward.[10]"

Critique from empiricism as epistemology

On his Youtube Channel, presuppositional apologist, Eric Hovind can be heard to utter the sentence "Absolute certainty means I can't be wrong." A pillar of presuppositional apologetics is that statements of knowledge with anything less than absolute relative certainty are beneath consideration. The word "absolute" means 'never changing', and no serious apologist would dispute that knowledge is defined as "verified true belief". The only way in which somebody could have absolute knowledge, in which they could have verified a belief to such a degree that they can know they will never have to change their mind, would be if they knew their senses were infallible. No person is infallible. An honest person, no matter what the claim, has to admit even a tiny chance that they could have made a mistake. A person's absolute certainty precludes actual knowledge because it means they must have not been using their fallible sense organs, which is the only means they have to verify the truth of beliefs. The presuppositionalist knows this, whether they admit it or not. Like any other apologist, they will resort to justifying their entire worldview and argument on a single piece of sensory input, namely; The Bible. Just be sure to point this out when they do.

It is typical of presuppositional apologists, in a discussion, to repeatedly ask the questions: "How do you know?" and "Are you certain?", hoping to trick the skeptic in to a position of epistemological defeat. The correct responses are as follows:

Apologist: How do you know?
Skeptic: Empirically.

Apologist: Are you certain?
Skeptic: Reasonably.

Euthyphro dilemma

The argument has the same problem as noted by the Euthyphro dilemma:

"Is something reasonable merely because God proclaims it so, or does God proclaim something reasonable because it is? [11]"

God as an explanation for logic

Main Article: Argument from ignorance

The final step in the persuasive argument is an argument from ignorance and God of the gaps. There may be other justifications for logic that are beyond our current understanding. The argument is reminiscent of the Natural-law argument and "Evolution is false, therefore God exists", which both suffer from the same problem.

The explanation also suffers from being a bigger mystery that what is supposedly explains.

It also falsely implies that to make use of logic, we require a "justification". We may assume the pragmatic position that logic is useful and leave it at that.

Self refuting argument

Presuppositions have a place in communication where a sentence's meaning makes implicit references to shared concepts. In contrast, presuppositional apologetics claim that views that are based on reliance of sensory experience is potentially flawed and only religious scripture/God is sufficient. This negates the apologist's argument since the claims relies on human sensory experience, language, human cognition and further presuppositions to be meaningful and be understood:

"When language comes into existence, it is a mix of hard wired biology, structures in the brain, observation of the world around us, our ability to reflect on concepts we form. By dismissing naturalistic [communicative] presupposition, in his attempt to give faith based presupposition precedence, Sye cuts away the foundation of Christian suppositionalist superiority and his argument crumbles to dust. [12]"

In other words, assuming a single holy book or God is the sole foundation is not enough to bootstrap or justify knowledge, logic, communication and reason. We require further presuppositions which the apologist has already rejected.

Tu quoque justification

Presuppositional apologetics has criticised atheists for using presuppositions.

"Because your presuppositions will not allow you to examine without bias the evidence that I present to you for God's existence. [...] Your presupposition is that there is no God; therefore, no matter what I might present to you to show His existence, you must interpret it in a manner consistent with your presupposition: namely, that there is no God. [13]"

Since atheist or perhaps everyone allegedly uses presuppositions, this supposedly justifies presuppositional apologetics. However, this is fallacious because the "presuppositions of atheists" are not relevant to the question of the existence of God. This is a tu quoque argument.

It is also a straw man argument since some atheists allow the possibility of their mind being changed by evidence. Arguably, many atheists "presuppose" skepticism and avoidance of dogmatism. These beliefs can themselves be subjected to skeptical examination. However, skepticism does not preclude belief in God.

It is also false to draw an analogy between skeptical presuppositions and religious presuppositions. Scepticism attempts to minimise assumptions while presuppositionalist believers assume quite a bit! This analogy is similar to the claim that religion is another way of knowing i.e. all belief systems are equally valid. An example of a faulty analogy:

"Arguments for religions and philosophical systems are arguments for world views. A world view is a general account of all reality, an understanding of the most basic features of the universe. All arguments for the truth of world views (whether religious, philosophical, political, scientific or whatever) must presuppose standards of rationality consistent with those world views. All such arguments, therefore, are circular in a way similar to ours. [6]"

If this conclusion was true, it would only imply that any such "world view" cannot be logically justified and not that presuppositional apologetics is justified. It is possible to live and provisionally believe things without any grand "world view", such as with existentialism or living without any knowledge of philosophy (naive realism).

Concerns about Platonic Epistemology

Reformed Epistemology

There are many schools of epistemology that are explicitly religious which have a concern with the acceptance of Platonic Epistemology. This is particularly true of the reformed epistemology movement. The concern is that the Platonic theory seems to be treating the existence of God as the existence of a category, rather than as the existence of an object (or fact). If we accept that God is a particular "form" in the sense of Platonic epistemology, then there is some concern about whether or not God is actually an instantiation.

For the reformed epistemologists, God must be actual, and it will not do for God to be a general claim which has a number of instantiations. The reformed epistemologists have a concern with the Platonic epistemology that it requires them to create a singular category for God, of which God would be the only member. The concern, here, is that many of the presuppositionalists want God to be, or be indistinguishable from, that category.

Secular Concerns

Most secular epistemologists now reject Platonic epistemology in favor of Kantian or Quine-ian epistemology. Even Cartesian epistemology (despite some of the concerns in cognitive science and some of the infinite regression concerns) is often considered more sound than Platonic epistemology.

The major issue is that Platonic epistemology maintains that categories are objective. This is not something that most epistemologists are willing to commit themselves too, as it makes some serious presuppositions about philosophy of mind which are not accepted in the field. Most epistemologists maintain that, to some degree or another, the categories that exist in logical systems are a cognitive necessity, but not objective. Whether there are any objective category is an open question among philosophers, but most reject the idea that all epistemological categories are objective.

Perceptual categories, like color, are now understood to be incredibly fluid across cultures. This presents a problem, as the property of red-ness is not an objective property of the objective, but a property of the object as it is represented in the brain/mind. The property of the object has to be described differently, because color is too fluid to be used as an objective descriptor.

List of presuppositional theologians

Notable proponents of presuppositional apologetics include:


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 John Frame, Five Views on Apologetics, 2010
  2. [1]
  3. Theopedia, Presuppositional apologetics, retrieved 4th July 2014
  4. Glenn Hendrickson, Essay: Christianity Explains Logic, April 27, 2010
  5. Karen S, Yes, Another Pre-Sup Counter-Script New and Improved!, February 27, 2014
  6. 6.0 6.1 [2]
  7. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Psychologism, substantive revision Mon Nov 7, 2011
  8. [3]
  9. [4]
  10. Steve Shives, Five Stupid Things About Presuppositional Apologetics
  11. [5]
  12. Philip Rose, How 2 Debate Theist GOTCHA Arguments 4, 2 Jun 2012
  13. [6]

See also

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