Evidential or Presuppositional Apologetics?

by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

Although I have written on a similar topic before ("Presuppositions and Fallacies in Evolutionary Science"), I wanted to develop the subject further and provide some resources. Both articles are mainly written to edify Christians.

The word apology has somewhat devolved over time so that common usage means someone is sorry: "I apologize for stealing your horse and shooting up the town". Simply put, apologetics is the branch of Christian theology that deals with giving a reasoned defense of the faith. We have to be careful to distinguish the word's usage, since there are atheist apologists, Mohammedan apologists, Roman Catholic apologists, and various non-religious apologists as well. So from here on out, I'm discussing Christian apologetics. There are various schools of apologetics. Perhaps some people choose an apologetic method because they admire celebrities that use a particular version. I've seen from three to seven different methods, but the two that seem to be most common in Christian circles are evidential and presuppositional. There is some overlap between classical and evidential, but the difference seems small.

The two main apologetic methods used by Christians are evidential and presuppositional. One is much more Christ-honoring. See why.
Modified from an image on Pixabay by Robert Owen-Wahl
Someone made a comment that there is a church office of apologist which is under the authority of the pastor and elders. Maybe in his church, but there is nothing in the Bible to support such a claim. All Christians are to give an account for the hope that is in us to anyone who asks, but there are people who delve more deeply into evidence and philosophy, and those are the ones we generally think of when the word apologist is used.

Christian apologists are well-acquainted with 1 Peter 3:15, where ἀπολογία (apologia), the word is found. Unfortunately, there are some that get the bit in their teeth and want to out-argue atheists. Wrong! It's not a game, and it's not about you and your ego, you savvy? There are folks who quote the part of 1 Peter 3:15 about "giving a defense", but it seems they skip the first part about "sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts". We are to glorify God, not ourselves, and to be able to share the gospel message with those who are perishing. It is not us doing the saving (James 1:18, Titus 3:5, Ezek 36:26), and it is not because of our "brilliant" arguments and presentations (1 Cor. 2:3-5). 

This leads into the main problem with evidential apologetics: it is ultimately humanistic in its approach, appealing to the intellect and, ultimately, pride. People like to believe they're special and clever, so an approach of, "I'll present evidence for God's existence, and you can decide if he exists", or succumbing to the demands of mockers to "discuss, but leave the Bible out of it" is dishonoring to God and contrary to Scripture (Jer. 17:9, 1 Cor. 1:20, 2 Cor. 4:4, John 8:44, Romans 1:21). Sorry, pard, I don't cotton to the notion of putting the Creator of the universe on trial, thereby making him subordinate to the mind of sinful man.

An apologist who is described as classical but with evidential leanings is William Lane Craig. He has followers who have an almost fanatical devotion to him. I'll allow that he's an excellent philosopher and destroys atheism, but his theology is dreadful. In fact, his debates are more about theism in general than the God of the Bible (see this video for one minute, which is supposed to start at 46:26), and he is not even certain that God exists! (I've not found a retraction on his remark.) It's been said that theology drives your apologetic methods, and Craig believes in an odd doctrine called molinism. Because of his unbiblical apologetics, intellectual dishonesty, mockery of biblical creationists, and weak theology, I'm glad that Clinton Richard Dawkins refuses to debate him. Even if Dawkins became convinced that there's a God, what then? By leaving the gospel out of the presentation, Dawkins would still be lost in his sins because he did not repent and submit to Jesus Christ for salvation. (He can be saved; while there's life, there's hope, right? As to when a life will be extinguished, only God knows. It could be moments away.) Atheist Antony Flew was converted to theism, but apparently not to biblical Christianity. Great, evidence gave us a Deist, and the same could happen to Dawkins or other atheists.

The method that I have found to be the most Christ-honoring (and supportive of the often-neglected part of 1 Peter 3:15) is presuppositional apologetics. Presuppositions are those things we take for granted as true (axioms) upon which we build our worldviews. The atheistic worldview is incoherent, and we challenge it by asking hard questions and showing them that their reasoning is fundamentally flawed without God. Atheists illogically use arbitrary assertions from their unargued philosophical biases. We also try to get across that they stand on the biblical worldview when they criticize it! Science and reason are impossible in an atheistic worldview.

Presuppositionalists claim to believe the Bible, and we don't feel a need to "prove that God exists", often citing Romans 1:18-23 in support of our view that unbelievers know that God exists. We also appeal to how Jesus and others in the Bible treated Scripture — as the written Word of God that is eternal (Isaiah 40:8). Atheists and evolutionists detest presuppositional apologetics and ridicule us for using this approach. (Unfortunately, it is also misunderstood, misrepresented, and maligned by some professing Christians as well. It makes matters worse when some presuppositionalists misuse the apologetic, treat it like a cudgel, and try to score points over the "enemy".) People who get burrs under their saddles about presuppositional apologetics don't really understand it. Mayhaps they simply don't want to accept the inherent biblical presuppositions of the apologetic.

When I started with apologetics on my other Weblogs, The Question Evolution Project, and this site, I was taking an approach of, "Provide just the scientific evidence and people will realize that evolution is false and creation is true". But I foolishly chose to leave the Bible out of the posts (there may be a few of those still on here from the earliest days). Most of my material has a presuppositional approach now.

Although presuppositional apologetics has been developed by Calvinists and Reformed theologians, I do not claim that label, nor Arminian (though someone told me I'm closer to Calvinism than I think I am, but never mind about that now). You don't have to be a Calvinist to use presuppositional apologetics. Believe the Bible. There are different versions of presuppositional (or covenential apologetics), but I favor the Cornelius Van Til / Greg Bahnsen approach. 

On a side note, I don't see how any presuppositionalist can be an Old Earth Creationist or theistic evolutionist. Both positions require eisegesis on a grand scale. OECs also elevate science philosophies to a magisterial position over God's revealed Word, thereby denying the authority of Scripture. Such things should be abhorrent to any Bible-believing presuppositionalist — or any apologist at all, if you study on it.

It really gets atheists and evolutionists on the prod when we point out that they are hardcore presuppositionalists themselves! They are presupposing the "realities" of evolution, methodological and philosophical naturalism, the non-existence of God, and so forth. Many refer to biblical creationists as "science deniers", but they are arguing from their own presuppositions and prejudicial conjectures; the Bible does not contradict operational science! We do not deny observed phenomena.

People with anti-Christian and anti-creationist biases want us to argue on "neutral ground". Not this child! Dr. Greg Bahnsen said about people who claim to be neutral, "They aren't, and you shouldn't be" (see the video clip "The Myth of Neutrality" for more about that.) What happens is that when we give in to this, we are denying what Scripture teaches about the mind and nature of man, accepting their naturalistic presuppositions, and arguing from there!

One of the main complaints against presuppositional apologetics is that we use circular reasoning ("begging the question"). The response is, "Yes, but..." Circular reasoning is logically valid to an extent (see "Circular Reasoning" and "Using the Bible to prove the Bible? — Are biblical creationists guilty of circular reasoning?"). The fallacy occurs when it's viciously circular and arbitrary. However, everyone has an ultimate starting point for their worldviews, and ours is based on the Bible. Materialists also also use circular reasoning when appealing to their ultimate starting point.

Another accusation leveled at presuppositionalists is that we reject evidence and reason in favor of fideism. This is not the case. As Dr. Jason Lisle points out in The Ultimate Proof of Creation, evidentialists have presuppositions, and presuppositionalists use reason and evidence. However, we present evidence in a presuppositional framework. That is, we use reason and evidence with Scripture. For those who want to dig deeper, take a look at Dr. Lisle's video, and here is a series of four lectures on MP3 by Dr. Bahnsen explaining the Van Tillian apologetic. One lecture is mostly biographical, but the the fourth part discusses the use of evidence in apologetics. Also, I recommend an article with a decidedly intellectual approach by Dr. Bahnsen, "Tools of Apologetics", two parts on the same page. 

There are some presuppositionalists who are abrasive and answer questions with remarks like "Repent and believe and you'll understand". (Someone took his unhelpful pills that morning.) There are times when it is better to simply answer a question and possibly remove a hindrance for someone, unless it's a "scientifically prove that God exists" demand or a "who made God" question (see "Scientifically Proving the Existence of God").

One thing frequently heard in discussions of presuppositional apologetics is that we are to "shut the mouths" of unbelievers (Mark 11:30, Romans 3:19-20). Naturally, that cannot be literal. Because of egos and hatred of God, we're unlikely to have quietly go out to pasture. We show that their arguments are reduced to absurdity. (A few professing atheists are willing to talk, then shake hands and part friendly, but those are fewer every day.) I've had tinhorns deny that their logic and accusations have been refuted, and even go haywire in their denials of definitive evidence that has been presented. Many resort to false accusations, side issues (such as attacking a person's political views instead of the subject matter), and invective. When a discussion reaches this point, it's time to saddle up and ride off. Be sure to shake the dust off your boots (Mark 6:11 ESV).

EDIT 11-06-2016:  I'm not saying that we need to hit people over the head with law, grace, and repentance in every encounter; it's been rightly said that the Bible is a sword, not a club. We can "plant seeds", and be judicious in our use of Scripture. This can be especially beneficial in long-term relationships and discussions.

It was after I read and heard Dr. Lisle's Ultimate Proof that I realized that I had been "prepped" for many years for presuppositional apologetics, as several major creation science ministries present evidence in a presuppositional framework. This led to big changes in my methodology, thinking, writing, and theology.

This is where I let Paul F. Taylor and Janet Mefferd tell you more. The interview is the first part of the podcast, free to listen online, free to download if you have a Soundcloud account, which is also free. Click on Janet Mefferd Today, October 13, 2016.

Ray Comfort beautifully illustrates much of what I've been saying. (When someone tried to pin him down whether or not he was a Calvinist, he, too, refused the labels of Calvinist or Arminian: "I believe the Bible . . . no one can be saved without the sovereign grace of God".) He's a straight shooter, knowing and saying that nobody can earn their way into Heaven, and we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). In discussions with atheists, he uses reason, evidence, and faith. It's easy to get into a discussion and try to out-evidence someone, and Comfort knows this. He also knows this is not a matter of intellect or evidence, but a spiritual matter. People need to humble themselves and repent for salvation. He uses a form of the Cosmological Argument, which, when used on "neutral ground" (without the Bible), may only persuade people that there is some sort of creator. He does not stay on that neutral ground, but presses forward. I urge you to watch Ray Comfort's video, "The Atheist Delusion". It's free, and should be beneficial for Christians as well as those who claim to be atheists.

The horribly misnamed "Friendly Atheist" said at the end of his review of The Atheist Delusion, "And if anyone’s atheism is destroyed by watching it, it must not have been very strong to begin with". Which I translate as, "If your atheism is destroyed, your faith was weak"; he is essentially admitting that atheism is a faith-based belief system.

With atheists and many evolutionists, it's not a matter of evidence or reason. Eric Hovind said that he asked atheists at a so-called "Reason Rally" (which is a fallacious name, assuming that atheists are the rational ones and Christians are irrational) if he proved to their satisfaction that God exists, would they worship him? They said, "No". Check this interview with L. Aron Nelson ("Aron Ra"), starting at the 2:13 mark as an example. Once again, we see Romans 1:18 verified, and add Psalm 14:1.

Christians and creationists must have apologetic methods that are Christ-honoring. We need to know and believe our Bible, know what we believe and why, and not compromise on the truth.