A Primer on Presuppositional Apologetics

Christian apologetics is the discipline or practice of defending and commending Christianity. Christianity as a worldview competes with a host of other worldviews to accurately represent things as they are. Imagine with me a Christian engaging a non-Christian in apologetics. By what criteria will he judge the arguments? Ah, but here is the kicker: The debate is about the criteria themselves.

How so? When a Christian engages a non-Christian, each makes a claim about ultimate reality—the way things really are. Now the way things really are affects the way people can know things. (Philosophy says that your ontology [philosophy of what is] has implications for your epistemology [philosophy of how we know what is].) The Christian derives his ontology and epistemology from biblical and systematic theology; the non-Christian derives his from somewhere else—if an atheist, perhaps from his own experience filtered through his own reason. The Christian and the non-Christian, because they have different ontologies and epistemologies, hold very different ideas about what is scientifically possible, morally just, or rationally plausible. (For instance, the vicarious atonement is morally repugnant to unbelievers, cf. 1 Cor. 1:18–24.) Worldviews clash over ultimate issues, including what categories best sort data and what criteria best judge arguments. Christianity tells us that even more is at stake—namely, how we may be right with God.

Recognizing this conundrum, some apologists attempt to lead unbelievers to Christianity over so-called neutral ground, to appeal to assumptions and criteria “common” to both the Christian and the non-Christian. A school of apologetics called presuppositionalism, however, has disagreed with that methodology. Presuppositionalism asserts that by assuming that the believer and unbeliever have criteria in common—that there is neutral data out there they both may properly use—the apologist has already sold the farm (at least, implicitly).

I advocate presuppositional apologetics. I assume my audience shares my commitment to glorify God in all things and to recognize the Lordship of Christ in every endeavor (1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 10:4–5; 1 Pet. 3:15). I do not assume that anyone who opts for a different apologetic methodology from me is somehow deficient in his religious affections, nor do I deny the valuable contribution non-presuppositional apologists have made to Christian scholarship or to kingdom service. I hope to provoke to love and to good works, and to advocate a method of apologetics that I believe is consistent with what Scripture reveals. First, I will summarize pertinent areas of systematic theology. Second, I will draw implications from theology for philosophy and apologetics. Finally, I will outline a rough strategy of presuppositional apologetics.


The Bible tells us that God is triune, personal, purposeful, eternal, omniscient, sovereign, self-contained, self-sufficient, both transcendent and immanent. He is the unique Creator. When we say that God is self-contained and self-sufficient (in theology, His aseity, cf. John 5:26; Acts 17:25), we imply that there was a time when the Trinity was all that was (Ex. 3:13–15; Ps. 90:2), presumably enjoying one another’s infinite love (John 17:5, 26; 1 John 4:8). When we say God is self-contained and self-sufficient, we also imply that God looks to nothing outside Himself for self-definition. He does not exist within a larger metaphysical matrix (Isa. 43:10; 44:6–8; 45:21–22). Furthermore, He knows Himself perfectly. The Spirit searches “the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). God is perfectly satisfied with Himself. He knows everything about Himself, and He knows how all of that “everything” relates to the rest of that “everything.” (I speak as a fool.) Since He knows Himself and all the interrelations exhaustively, His knowledge is of unique and infinite quality: no creature could ever attain to that unique and infinite quality of knowledge. It is not just a very big quantity of knowledge; it’s on a different level (Isa. 55:8–9). When God created the world, He created it according to His own perfect knowledge and plan. God’s knowledge and God’s plan are mutually inclusive: All that He has planned He knows about, and all that He knows about He knows by virtue of the fact that He planned it (Ps. 104:24; Dan. 4:35; Isa 46:10; Heb. 1:3). The Creator is distinct from His creation.

The Bible says that this God has revealed Himself. There are two basic categories of revelation: general (to all men generally) and special (to some men in particular). When God reveals Himself, He is successful in His purposes (Isa. 55:11). Now general revelation and special revelation have different purposes, but both kinds of revelation are necessary. They work together, the one helping to interpret the other. Reformation theology teaches that with respect to His purposes, God’s revelation is authoritative, sufficient, and clear—and ultimately necessary for our existence (Job 23:12; Ps. 19, 119; Prov. 29:18; Isa. 46:10; Amos 8:11; Matt. 5:17–18; 16:1–4; John 10:35; Rom. 1; 2 Tim. 3:15; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:13).

As Francis Schaeffer put it, God is there, and He is not silent. But who is listening? What of man and his capacity to receive God’s self-revelation? The Bible tells us that God created man to bear God’s image and to act as a vice regent in creation. Man is rational, emotional, spiritual, moral, creative, relational, and so forth. Even in the garden, as a creature, man was finite. Unique among creatures, but still not the Creator. Genesis describes the Fall from this innocence into sin: Eve’s rejecting God’s word for Satan’s, and the subsequent tragic trajectory of a fallen civilization. Now man was not simply finite; now He was sinful, too. He never could have attained to God’s knowledge, but now His understanding was distorted, too. The Fall had noetic effects (effects on man’s knowledge). Fallen man instinctively rejects God’s truth to the point of blind self-deception because God’s truth condemns him (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 1:18; Rom. 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Pet. 3:5).

In short, because fallen man does not fear God, he has forfeited true wisdom and knowledge (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Because He is separated from God (Isa. 59:1–2) and rejects Christ, He does not know where “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are tucked away (Col. 2:2–3). Only with salvation can fallen man’s mind be renewed (Rom. 12:1–2; Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:10).

Implications for Philosophy and Apologetics (a Grocery List)

First, because of who He is, God Himself is the standard of what makes right right and wrong wrong, of what is possible and what is impossible. Because of who He is, only such a Being is qualified to speak authoritatively and interpret the facts of existence for us. The laws of the universe obey Him, not vice versa. Because nothing is beyond His knowledge or control, nothing could trip Him up or cause Him to err; we can trust His Word (Heb. 6:13). Only such a sure word can serve as a proper foundation for knowledge. As I said above, our ontology determines our epistemology. Christian ontology is about an infinite-personal God who speaks; and Christian epistemology says that no one has access to sure knowledge unless he receives it from the God who speaks.

Second, Christianity’s most basic distinction is the Creator-creature distinction. God is God; everything else is not God. That’s easy to say but hard for sinners to accept. We keep trying to ascend to God or to bring Him down to chum around benignly among us.

Third, God’s revelation is, objectively speaking, plain enough for all to see what He’s saying. He says that even the lost people “know” Him, although they lie like crazy and tell us the data are too ambiguous to be sure (Rom. 1). IT technicians have a name for a similar problem: “Error Is Between Keyboard and Chair.” There are no bugs in God’s program. The error is not with Him. The unbeliever is in a pickle: He has rejected God and His Word and must fend for himself in a universe that cries out to him that he is justly condemned (Rom. 1). The data are anything but ambiguous; God regards them as objectively certain. The unbeliever persists in finding out by himself. He is a God wannabe.

Fourth, all human knowledge is either an obedient or a disobedient response to God’s revelation. Even in the garden, Adam and Eve did not generate their own knowledge: They received revelation from God, and their own minds constructed an interpretive model (in their own creaturely way) of what God had said. To this day, human knowledge is a construction based on what God has said. Some receive God’s Word obediently; some plunder it for their own purposes. Obviously, unbelievers recognize certain data about the universe; the problem is, they try to plug that data into a worldview that is ultimately false, and hence a worldview that cannot account for the data.

Fifth, there is an antithesis in the way a believer or an unbeliever receives God’s knowledge. Yes, they look at the same data in creation. Yes, they look at the same printed Bible. But they do not make the same ultimate assumptions. The unbeliever assumes that he does not need God; the believer knows that he does. One is a covenant breaker, the other a covenant keeper. Here’s the crux: The unbeliever asserts that he does not need God, but this is a self-destructive assertion (see below).

Finally, Christianity is one coherent unit. Christianity is not bare theism with a Messiah tacked on. Both in reality and on paper, God is a Trinity, the Second Person of which entered into space-time history and took on a human nature to redeem mankind who had sinned grievously against Him and had become hopelessly lost. Both in reality and on paper, all of those events and propositions are inextricably linked. God, Christ, the Spirit, Scriptures, sin, salvation—the sinner needs to know the basics of each to have a proper understanding of how to be saved. Furthermore, to defend bare theism (even provisionally) without Christ is to defend a god who isn’t there; it is to defend a human construction, an idol.

How to “Do” Presuppositional Apologetics

Which apologetic method is most consistent with Christian theology? How do we go about doing apologetics, defending Christianity, without (1) leaping into irrational fideism or (2) selling the farm and being inconsistent with everything Christianity tells us?

First, point out to the unbeliever his own creatureliness. He cannot know everything. The implications of our creatureliness are that there will always be something outside the realm of our experience and/or beyond our reasoning. How can we know for sure that anything we presently think is true, if there is the possibility that something “out there” could potentially overturn all our prior ideas? Well, we have to take it on faith. All knowledge involves a certain amount of faith.

Second, point out to the unbeliever that we all reason somewhat circularly. There are certain presuppositions (hence the name presuppositionalism that everyone holds on faith, consciously or unconsciously. We all have grids to interpret the data; these grids are fashioned according to our own presuppositions and, if truth be told, predilections.

Third, point out his sin or his anti-Christian assumptions. He has assumed there is no God who can speak as God has spoken.

Fourth, point out the self-destructive nature of these assumptions. He has built an epistemological house on the sand. When the rains of existence come down, his house won’t stand. He has claimed the right to judge the rationality, possibility, and morality of things; but apart from God, he cannot make any of his claims “stick” beyond his own subjective state. He cannot explain rationality itself. Whydo the laws of logic seem to work? Who says so? Why do we all have moral ideas about right and wrong and the desire to impose them? Why do we expect nature to act uniformly? The unbeliever cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for the why of the most basic “laws,” the very criteria he wants to impose. He has to admit that either he made them up or that he accepts them on the authority of other finite creatures. The believer, however, asserts that God has spoken to us, that deep down we know this, and that God has explained these most basic laws and criteria. God has not told us everything there is to know, but He has told us enough with which to navigate existence.

Practically speaking, the believer seeks to deconstruct the unbeliever’s worldview, showing how the unbeliever has nothing to stand on. The believer has at his disposal every datum of the universe—even things as “unlikely” as evil and suffering—because Christianity provides the only satisfactory explanation for this data. He need not fear anything the unbeliever might throw at him; the very fact that the unbeliever can protest against God is a witness to the war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. When the unbeliever uses logic against Christianity, he implicitly acknowledges a God who grants us logic. This is “Judo” apologetics: Unbelievers’ energy is used against them.

In short, the Christian must assert that Christianity is the only satisfactory worldview. All else is impossible. Any other claim is too small.

Mike Osborne received a B.A. in Bible and an M.A. in Church History from Bob Jones University. He was a contributing author for BJU Press’s high school Bible textbooks What Is Truth?, Who Is This Jesus?, and The Dark Side of the Internet (appendix essays). He and his wife, Becky, reside in Omaha, Nebraska, and are lay helpers at Good Shepherd Baptist Church. Mike plans to pursue further course work in apologetics. In his spare time, he’s a classical music junky, and he enjoys listening to books on tape.

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