Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On the “Appropriate” Apologetic Method

One of the things I enjoy most about Triablogue is that we’re not monolithic. Each of us is a separate individual who has his own perspective on various issues. While there is great overlap amongst us, there is also quite a bit of diversity.

I bring that up because I’ve recently been reading over some essays penned by a presuppositionalist who argued that presuppositionalism is the only valid apologetic method. Now, as a presuppositionalist myself, I believe this statement is true in a very limited sense. That is, I believe that those who would use evidentialist approaches to apologetics also rely on presuppositions that they just don’t express. As a result, you cannot escape the fact that at the ultimate level you will need to deal with presuppositions.

However, that is not what this individual meant (note: this is a person I know locally and what I read is not posted anywhere online, so I’m not going to use his name). What he meant was that those who would use an approach different from the presuppositional approach were, in fact, sinning by doing so.

This view saddens me, much like the hypercalvinist view does. In fact, I think that this may be just an example of what James White termed the “cage stage” (only here it applies to someone who just read Bahnsen for the first time rather than a new convert to Calvinism).

This strikes at the heart of apologetics. Apologetics requires us to make a defense for any who should ask. And the fact is that while presuppositionalism is philosophically sound, it probably only works well at converting INTP personalities (a personality type of which I should note only about 2% of Americans are, at least according to the random website I just Googled…). Regardless of the actual percentage, it’s quite apparent that most people couldn’t care less about philosophy.

However, they are drawn toward evidentialist arguments. And while these arguments will never be as “air tight” (as far as the presuppositionalist is concerned) they are often more convincing precisely because they are easier to understand and follow. Jason Engwer does an excellent job at expounding on the evidence for Christianity in such a manner.

But that would just mean that evidentialism is pragmatic, not necessarily that it is not sinful. I would point out, however, that the Bible does use evidential arguments from time to time too. For instance, when Scripture says in Psalm 19:1 that the heavens declare the glory of God, David is referring to how God’s glory is manifested in nature. It is evidenced by nature itself. And Paul echoes that in Romans 1 as well, saying that God’s attributes are seen in what has been made.

Romans 1, by the way, is a beautiful illustration of the wedding of presuppositional thought to evidentialism. That is, we have the fact that the unbelievers refuse to accept what is plainly seen, and what is plainly seen is the evidence found in creation.

That evidence is there. If you offer an evidential claim, you have a reason to do so. Likewise, we know that no amount of evidence is sufficient in and of itself to convince a non-believer of the truth of God. Both must be taken into account.

In my experience, presuppositionalism works best at demonstrating that atheists have no philosophical standing (although see my caveat below). But when dealing with non-atheist, those who accept supernatural concepts and are not limited to materialism, then presuppositionalism is nowhere near as strong as evidentialism. This isn’t to say that presuppositionalism is impotent; just that it is more difficult to employ. To give an example, one could argue philosophically why it is impossible that Tom murdered Fred because of Tom’s nature; but it’s simpler to show the photograph of Tom on vacation in England at the exact same moment that Fred was murdered in Detroit. In the same way, one could argue that the plurality of gods in Mormonism would render the world senseless, but it’s easier to demonstrate historically that Joseph Smith was a conman.

Now for my caveat. When I said that presuppositionalism works best at demonstrating atheists have no philosophical background, it’s not strictly precise. That’s because in reality, presuppositionalism works best when it’s looking at the worldview level. This is most often expressed when dealing with atheists because their worldview is so diametrically opposed to Christianity on all fronts; however, if we got to the level of a worldview (i.e., determining what was appropriate evidence in the first place), then presuppositionalism would flourish against any religious view too. That is, once the unbeliever sees that the evidence is against his position, he will have to retreat to redefine what evidence is or jettison his view. At this point, the presuppositional argument must come into play.

When it comes to apologetics, therefore, I have observed the following (whether it is universal I know not, although it’s certainly widespread here in America). The average person does not care for philosophy, and therefore will be more impacted by an evidentialist apologetic. Those who are most vocal in opposition to Christianity, however, do focus more on philosophy because they’ve moved to the point where the very definition of “evidence” is determined, and those people will be more impacted by a presuppositional argument. In the apologetic setting that T-Blog is usually engaged in (that is, actively engaged with non-believers who are openly hostile to Christianity), presuppositionalism is probably the more effective tool. However, when you’re talking to the average person off the street and evangelizing, evidentialism is probably the more effective tool. (These are generalizations, and not everyone we deal with is a die-hard anti-Christian; T-Blog also provides pastoral posts from time to time.)

One final note. God draws His elect through both methods. There are countless saved by evidential arguments, and there are likewise countless saved by presuppositional arguments (although probably not as many in the latter group). It is not a sin to use an evidential argument. But it is a sin to think that it would be a sin to use an evidential argument. Apologetics must be person-relative. What God uses to convince one sheep to return to the fold is not necessarily what He will use to convince another sheep to return to the fold. God made each of us, and to cite the above (albeit questionable) statistic about the percentage of INTPs in America, God created both INTPs and ESFJs.


  1. While I'm a Van Tillian presuppositionalist, let's not forget that there are other forms of Christian "presuppositionalism".

    For example, there's the Axiomatic (aka Rational/Deductive/Dogmatic) Presuppositionalism of Scripturalists like Gordon Clark (and modified forms like that of Vincent Cheung).

    Systematic Coherency/Consistency Presuppositionalism of Edward John Carnell.

    Practical Presuppositionalism of Francis Schaeffer.

    (The last two of which are examples of what Ronald H. Nash considered to be forms of the kind of presuppositionalism he holds to. Namely, Abductive Presuppositionalism. That is, reasoning/inferring to the better or best hypothesis/theory (or theories) which have the greatest explanatory power and explanatory scope.

    These are just some of the kinds that differ from Cornelius Van Til's Revelational (Biblical) Presuppositionalism. Which can take advantage of inductive, deductive, abductive, and reductive arguments. Rather than being limited to one kind of argument or sub-arguments.

  2. I am just cocooning out of my "cage stage," but I still use presuppositional apologetics less because I don't have the epistemological background to argue TAG.

    I do enjoy Francis Schaeffer's approach were you do an internal critique of the unbeliever's worldview to demonstrate "points of tension" and push them towards being more consistent. With militant atheists who tend to at least blog consistently about their worldview (probably a different story at home), I still tend to fall back on evidential apologetics especially if I'm arguing defensively.

  3. Btw, it's Scripturalist (Clarkian-like)versions of presuppositionalism that views evidential arguments as next to worthless (or in fact worthless).

    Abductive versions of presuppositionalism (e.g. Carnell, Schaeffer, Nash et al.) endorse the use of empirical evidences.

    Finally, Van Til's version of presuppositionalism was in favor of the use of evidences when done correctly (with the proper presuppositional underpinnings). Unfortunately, it's a widespread misconception that Van Til's presuppositionalism doesn't endorse evidental arguments based on empirical and inductive investigation. Van Til was strongly for evidences in that sense. He was just against the EvidentialISM traditional methods of apologetics.

  4. Dear Peter,

    I don't know if you're still tracking this blog thread of yours, but I've quoted your arguments above in this thread discussion.

    The response I received was "How do you know that the Heavens declare the glory of God apart from Scripture? Accordingly, to defend that premise with any absolute authority other than Scripture is sin. To do anything less is to make something other than God's word your ultimate authority, which is again sin.

    Philosophically, you have yet to show how it is possible to justify the truth of the premises used in an evidentialist or Thomistic approach. Is it that you don't think that your defense of the faith needs to be justified by some source greater than yourself? Moreover, how does one get from an assertion that is not justified from Scripture (such as that the Heavens declare God's glory) to the conclusion of the Ontological Trinity of Scripture? What you're not grasping is that although men know God by nature, any appeal to that truth is not an apologetic nor justifiable apart from Scripture. That premise must be justified somehow, mustn't it?"

    It seems as if the mixed-martial-artist-apologist is talking past the presupp-only apologist. If you'd like to weigh in, I'd like to hear your thoughts.