How Should I Earnestly Contend for the Faith? Part 5

The fourth method of apologetics presented in Five Views on Apologetics is presuppositional apologetics, defended by Dr. John Frame. Dr. Frame is the J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary.

The main idea behind presuppositional apologetics is the Protestant Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura–or Scripture alone. In the previous methods of apologetics presented in this series, the starting point is evidence (philosophical, historical, etc.) which is used to argue for the truth of Christianity. In presuppositional apologetics, the truth of Christianity is presupposed from the start, and God’s revelation–preeminently the Bible–is used as the standard by which all other truth claims are judged. Besides Dr. Frame, presuppositional apologists include Cornelius van Til, Greg Bahnsen, Francis Schaeffer, James White, and Sye Ten Bruggencate.

Scripture actually has a great deal to say about epistemology, or theory of knowledge. It teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10; 15:33) and of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). “Fear” here is that reverent awe that yields obedience. It is based on the conviction that God is Lord, and we are his creatures and servants. He has the right to rule every aspect of our lives. When he speaks, we are to hear with the profoundest respect. What he says is more important than any other words we may hear. Indeed, his words judge all the affairs of human beings (John 12:48). The truth of his words, then, must be our most fundamental conviction, our most basic commitment. We may also describe that commitment as our most ultimate presupposition, for we bring that commitment into all our thought, seeking to bring all our ideas in conformity to it. That presupposition is therefore our ultimate criterion of truth. We measure and evaluate all other sources of knowledge by it. We bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
– John Frame, from Chapter Four: Presuppositional Apologetics, Five Views on Apologetics

Another important element of presuppositional apologetics is the idea that there is no neutral ground. In evidence based methods of apologetics, the Christian apologist starts on what is considered common ground with the unbeliever–logic, or philosophy, or perhaps history. The presuppositional apologist would argue that there really is no such common ground between Christians and unbelievers, because the way each side interprets the evidence is determined by their presuppositions, which differ between the Christian and the unbeliever. Just as the starting point for the presuppositional apologist is God’s Word, the unbeliever’s starting point may be methodological naturalism, or the Qur’an, etc. Perhaps the unbeliever doesn’t even know what presuppositions are affecting his judgment. The primary goal of presuppositional apologetics is to expose the presuppositions of the unbeliever as inconsistent. After the unbeliever is shown that her worldview doesn’t work after all, the hope of the presuppositional apologist is that she will embrace Christianity as the only worldview consistent with reality.

Presuppositional apologetics is often criticized as circular, since the apologist presupposes from the beginning that Christianity is true. John Frame counters this critique in two ways. First of all, presuppositionalism is linear rather than circular in the sense that there is a logical chain beginning with God’s rationality –> our faith –> our reasoning. Dr. Frame argues that, from this point of view, the argument is linear rather than circular. He also argues that circularity is actually unavoidable in any argument. All arguments presuppose some ultimate standard, and they will inevitably circle back to the standard.

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. But that is unavoidable for any system, any worldview. For God is the ultimate standard of meaning, truth, and rationality. For a philosophical rationalist, human reason is the ultimate standard. But how can the rationalist argue that position? He must, in the final analysis, say, “Reason is the ultimate standard because reason says so.” Or if a Muslim believes that Allah is the standard of rationality, he must argue that Allah is the standard because Allah says so. One cannot argue for an ultimate standard by appealing to a different standard. That would be inconsistent.

So there is a kind of circle here. But even this circle, as I indicated earlier, is linear in a sense. For it is a movement from God’s truth, to the gift of faith, to the reflection of God’s truth in human reasoning.
– John Frame, from Chapter Four: Presuppositional Apologetics, Five Views on Apologetics

Dr. Frame differs from some presuppositional apologists in that he is open to defending Christianity via evidence. Many presuppositionalists contend that any attempt to persuade using evidence is a waste of time, since according to the first chapter of Romans, God has plainly revealed Himself to all men, and unbelievers only deny God by suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Some presuppositionalists who take this stance go as far as to say that any use of evidence puts men in the position of judging God, and is therefore immoral and even idolatrous. Other anti-evidential presuppositionalists only hold that arguments from evidence are ineffective. Dr. Frame is comfortable with evidence, only cautioning that the apologist should argue in a way that is transcendental. By transcendental, John Frame means an argument that presents the God of the Bible as not only the most rational answer, but the only One who makes rational argument possible.

We can reach this transcendental conclusion by many kinds of specific arguments, including many of the traditional ones.
– John Frame, from Chapter Four: Presuppositional Apologetics, Five Views on Apologetics