If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time studying theology and apologetics, it’s that there is much division within different camps of Christian belief. This is not necessarily bad, nor is it unexpected (Matthew 10:34), but it does complicate things.
As such, there are certain “stereotypes” that are helpful for quickly communicating to others what you believe, but which also mask the nuances of what you believe.
This is why—as I’ve written on before—I think it’s always best to drive any conversation with questions.
To summarize my point, questions allow you to discover what others truly believe.
Nevertheless, I often experience these challenges due to my acceptance of controversial doctrines such as young earth creationism and presuppositionalism. With respect to the former, I’ve even begun using different terminology (i.e., “young age creationism”) to separate myself from the “pack.” Not only does this free me from much of the baggage often associated with the term “young earth creationist,” but it catches people off guard and causes them to ask questions about my view.
I welcome this because it allows me to clear up confusion on my own terms. However, I’ve not yet found a succinct way to do this with respect to presuppositionalism.
Broadly speaking, presuppositionalism is the view that, since the biblical God provides the necessary preconditions to make our experience intelligible, any reasoning used to argue against his existence must be self-defeating since it relies on the very things only Christianity can account for—things like logic, the orderliness of nature, meaningful moral claims and categories, etc. And in virtue of this, all argumentation should center around the absurdity of non-Christian views, rather than the evidence for Christianity.
Now, the fact that Christianity supplies the necessary “preconditions of intelligibility” everyone in the other most popular “camp” of apologetics—evidentialism—agrees with.
However, the evidentialist wants to affirm that the unbeliever can use his reasoning capacity to weigh the evidence for and against Christianity, and come to a decision on his own about whether he thinks Christianity accurately explains reality, and whether or not to put his trust in Christ.
There is a soteriological1 element in play here as well, but I’m going to table that issue right now. For more on my personal soteriological view, see here.
For now, suffice it to say that I am not a presuppositionalist because of my soteriology, but rather, because I believe this is how the Bible instructs Christians to defend the faith. In other words, my apologetical stance derives not necessarily from my soteriology, but from my understanding of Scripture nevertheless. This, you can read about here.
The purpose of this article is to clarify my particular view of presuppositional apologetics, with an emphasis on how I use evidence within a presuppositional context. I believe the method I describe here remains biblically faithful, while avoiding the connotation that all presuppositionalists do is “quote Bible verses back at you.”
“But how do you know?”
Before discussing the nature and necessity of evidence, a brief excursus is in order.
There is a popular presuppositional apologist who is known for his tendency to shutdown conversations in an instant using something like the above line.
He’ll remain nameless within this article, but just a little research would lead you to his work. Frankly, I like the guy. He is, I believe, a dear brother in Christ, and not for one moment do I care to disparage him or his reputation.
That said, I am not obliged to agree with the doings of each and every person I like and respect, and I do happen to take sharp disagreement with his application of presuppositional apologetics.
This practice has led to harsh critiques against the view, especially centering around religious epistemology. For example, Christian analytical philosopher Tim McGrew has taken Cornelius Van Til—responsible for widely advancing the presuppositional view—to task on a number of points, and raises objections to the view in his contribution to Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy.
Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis—a presuppositionalist) and Dr. Richard Howe (Southern Evangelical Seminary—an evidentialist) have faced off on the issue in a series of recent public exchanges.
I am not formally trained in epistemology, and therefore I rely on what the Bible reveals about the nature of knowledge and how we come to obtain it.2
Ultimately, then, my conviction about the true nature of knowledge does not stem from philosophical inquiry, but rather, theological inquiry. Don’t misunderstand me—I value the enterprise of philosophy, including the philosophy of knowledge, but my primary commitment is to God’s Word.
And I believe God’s Word calls for a presuppositional approach.
However, I do not advocate for a sort of “infinite regress” in argumentation, whereby the discussion never moves past the question, “How do you know?”
I think evidence can be used in these discussions, and in such a way that is biblically faithful to the presuppositional approach.
To unpack that, let’s first examine the nature of evidence.
The Nature of Evidence
I’ve elsewhere defined evidence this way: “Information presented as facts which either support or oppose a suggested proposition.”
Have you ever heard the phrase, “the evidence speaks for itself”?
Sadly, many folks go about believing that evidence is ipso facto authoritative; that is to say, that evidence is capable of settling a dispute absent any interpretation. But this is not how evidence works.
Consider the scenario of a courtroom and our American judicial system.
We have a judge, a jury, a prosecuting attorney, a defense attorney, expert witnesses, etc.
If evidence “spoke for itself” how many of these roles would be necessary? It seems to me that nothing more than a judge would be required, and his job would merely be to pass the sentence. We might allow for an expert witness to help the judge understand what the evidence is obviously and objectively “saying,” but it seems to me the jury and the two attorneys are unnecessary.
Evidence requires interpretation.
The reason the jury and attorneys are necessary is precisely because evidence can be interpreted based on any number of factors. One such factor is the overall narrative within which the evidence is presented. Each attorney creates a narrative they effectively “sell” to the jury, within which they interpret the evidence. Ultimately, whichever narrative yields a better interpretation of the evidence (or so it should go), wins.
Another problem with evidence “speaking for itself” is obvious; namely, evidence doesn’t speak.
An abstraction such as “evidence” speaking vocally is okay in poetic literature, but when used in what is supposed to be rational argumentation, to suggest that evidence speaks is to commit the logical fallacy of reification. Thus, accuracy and intellectual honesty force us to admit that evidence doesn’t say things, people who interpret evidence do.
But now we’re left with the uncomfortable reality that people are often not objective, and they certainly are not neutral. Along with their interpretation they bring years of experience, pre-commitments, and philosophical ideas that may or may not be correct (or even reasonable).
Put another way (and to my above analogy), people interpret evidence within a narrative which they’ve been sold—or, a worldview.
One is quite unlikely to accept evidence that does not fit within their overall paradigm of interpretation. Thus, one who has bought into their “narrative” hook, line, and sinker will often posit any rescuing device—no matter how absurd it sounds—if it allows them to preserve their view.
As an example, consider famed skeptic and biologist, Dr. Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins does not accept what he calls “The God Hypothesis.” How might the nature of evidence be at work in his situation?
Well, when pressed to offer suggestions as to the origin of life on our planet, for example, a transcendent Creator (i.e., the God of the Bible) won’t do. Instead, he’s on record suggesting that perhaps life on our planet was seeded by aliens—a view known as Panspermia.
Of course, we have absolutely zero evidence, as of today, that aliens exist. In contrast, we have loads of evidence for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Now, that is not to say that Professor Dawkins accepts this evidence, but this is precisely my point.
Dawkins has a worldview that the Christian God does not fit into; therefore, there must be another explanation, no matter how irrational it may be.
As another example, the latest atheistic “rescuing device” amounts to the “science of the gaps” argument.
“I don’t know, and you don’t either, but one day science will tell us!”, the naturalist exclaims.
Never mind the fact that this too is a reification fallacy (since science doesn’t say anything), it’s also an extremely closed-off view. We have objective evidence for the inference of design in nature, but such evidence is also dismissed as a byproduct of evolution! None other than Dawkins himself claims that we do see design in nature, but it’s nothing more than a psychological trick played on our minds by the “blind watchmaker,” evolution.
If what I’ve argued here is true, then the only logical conclusion is that evidence—by itself—can’t settle any debates. There is always something one can appeal to dig their heels into their pre-existing views.
It appears, then, that the real discussion must take place at a different level in order to make any meaningful headway.
The Necessity of Evidence
In nearly paradoxical form, we must also come to grips with the irrationality of holding to a view without any reason to do so.
What if I were to assert that zebras are purple? Naturally, you’d ask a question like, “how did you come to that conclusion?”
I have two general options with which I can reply:
- I can give evidence for my view that this is the case.
- I can simply say “because that’s what I choose to believe.”
Clearly, response #2 is completely arbitrary. Rational persons—and especially Bible believers—are to have reasons for their convictions (1 Peter 3:15, James 3:17, Isaiah 1:18, Proverbs 25:2).
So what are reasons?
Ultimately, reasons are supporting propositional statements that follow from the presentation of evidence! But we’ve already seen that evidence often does not settle debates because, by its very nature, evidence must be interpreted by fallible people according to preconceived ideas.
Here’s an appropriate question: When is evidence actually helpful?
Taking what we’ve learned so far, it seems rational to conclude that evidence is necessary and indeed can be helpful when both parties are agreed upon the foundational presuppositions.
Now, we’re getting somewhere.
Once everyone in a discussion is agreed upon what assumptions are to be used in the interpretation of the evidence, folks can come to a meaningful conclusion about a certain proposition given the agreed upon background information.
For example, I recently argued in a video that objections to Christianity are only meaningful when evaluated on Christian terms. It is unhelpful to dismiss biblical ideas on the assumptions of naturalism, because the Bible claims naturalism is false!3
At this point, the path forward is looking a bit clearer. Since often times discussions of a spiritual nature are between folks with fundamentally different worldviews (and assumptions, consequently), two reasonable maneuvers seem to be in order:
- Inviting a person to “step into” your worldview for the sake of argument.
- Stepping into another’s worldview for the sake of argument.
Thus, the only irresponsible way to handle such conversations would be to ignore the wide chasm between worldviews. Instead, the better way (and, as I’ve argued, the Scriptural way) is to recognize these assumptions and deal with them as suggested above.
Interestingly, there is stunning Scriptural confirmation for using such a method.
Putting Evidence to Work
I believe Proverbs 26 has something significant to say about the way we conduct apologetics:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. (Proverbs 26:4-5)
Proverbs in the Bible are used to create complex problems for thought; that is, they sometimes use a poetical device known as antithetical parallelism to teach a profound truth that seems paradoxical at first, but upon deeper reflection, makes complete sense.
In these verses, we have a paradox that can only be resolved by asking in what sense these verses use the word “answer,” respectively. Fortunately, the sense is actually implied within the text itself.
First, we’re not to answer the fool according to his folly. So who is the fool, and what is his folly? In biblical terms the “fool” is simply a person who does not know God (Psalm 14:1). If a person’s “folly” is what makes him a fool, and he’s a fool because he doesn’t know God, then we logically conclude that his failure to believe in God is his folly.
The phrase according to means “in conformity with.” So in this first sense, if we answer the person who does not believe in God in conformity with his disbelief, it makes us out to be the fool! Practically applied, would it not be foolish to argue for a supernatural resurrection with a person who has a priori ruled out supernatural things?
It would seem we’re at an impasse. How does one argue for a resurrection, then? By inviting the unbeliever to step into his worldview for the sake of argument! That is to say, given the possibility of an all-powerful God who created the cosmos and everything within it, is a resurrection out of the question?
Of course not.
Where most people get off track is thinking that this is where the discussion has to end!
As a matter of fact, one could freely discuss the historical evidence for such an event, for example, which is so thorough that most secular New Testament scholars refuse to draw a conclusion about the resurrection because any conclusion other than a resurrection is patently absurd.
But the person who has an unargued philosophical bias toward naturalism can give rescuing device after rescuing device, and ultimately, dismiss your arguments on the basis of her own assumptions. Thus, the rationally and biblically sound method for providing evidence for Christian ideas is to do so only within the presuppositional framework of Christian theism.4
Second, we find that we’re now to answer the fool according to his folly, because if we don’t, the unbeliever will become “wise is his own conceit.” Given the context provided above, it would appear that we must now give an answer in conformity with his disbelief in God. But what kind of answer could we give to expose the folly of his position?
It seems to me we’d have to assume his folly (again, only for the sake of discussion), and find out whether he believes things that are arbitrary, inconsistent, or which violate the preconditions of intelligibility.5 This is called an “internal critique,” and is yet another place where evidence is useful.
In other words, now that we’re all operating on the same assumptions (theirs, this time) we can examine the evidence and see if there is a way to make sense of it. When we do this, it’s often easy to point out logical errors and/or inconsistencies.
Building on our previous example, the unbeliever, in this case, is a naturalist. The naturalist has ruled out the possibility of a resurrection. But the naturalist also believes that life itself arose—from non-life—many billions of years ago, and has developed into the vast complex array of life we see today, with no help from a designer. But given the evidence this flies in the face of everything we know about biological organisms.6
The origin of life itself (among other things) is miraculous by any reasonable definition of the term! But the miraculous is not allowed on the naturalist’s worldview. Of course, this person believes he is alive. Therefore—whether or not he chooses to admit it7—it’s been demonstrated that his view is inconsistent.
We demonstrated this using evidence, but the evidence could only be properly dealt with because it was interpreted via the “correct” assumptions. We removed the worldview hurdle in evaluating the evidence, and productively showed how it can be rationally affirmed on our view, and must be irrationally affirmed on theirs.
In conclusion, we see that evidence is only meaningful when used to argue for a position on which everyone in the discussion agrees on the foundational assumptions. This is necessary because a person can dismiss the evidence a priori by an appeal to their worldview, without having to bear the burden of its other philosophical implications.
To combat this, we need a method that will allow us to unite with our interlocutors on their presuppositions—for the sake of argument—and then use the evidence to see if it’s logically cogent. In turn, we must then invite our interlocutors onto our “turf” and use the evidence to show why our position makes sense. We find such a useful method in Proverbs 26:4-5. In so doing, we remain biblically faithful and more logically effective by removing the “worldview obstacle.”
Here’s a helpful mantra to remember this and make your discussions more effective in the process: “Evidence in its place makes sense of your faith.”
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- That is, pertaining to salvation.
- Dr. Jason Lisle has recently written about what he calls “biblical epistemology,” whereby he gives Scriptural support for the view that all knowledge ultimately stems from the mind of God.
- And of course, the same goes for atheism or any other worldview.
- It’s a bit outside the discussion of this article, but it would be helpful to read here (see especially point #5) about why “neutrality” is a myth and why attempting to find common ground on which to argue is unhelpful and unbiblical.
- What Lisle calls the “AIP” test. See here for more. These three things are important, respectively, because (1) people are to have reasons for what they believe, (2) inconsistent views held in tension with one another represent a logically defunct worldview, and (3) any view which makes knowledge impossible is—by that very definition—irrational and impossible.
- For example, that the biological world is full of irreducibly complex “machines” that even our most complicated technology today cannot mimic. Or, that DNA is actually a language filled with its own parts of speech, rules of interpretation, etc.
- At this point, many atheists appeal to the above-mentioned “science of the gaps,” whereby they claim that we simply “don’t know how life originated on its own—but we will one day.” This has two problems, at minimum. First, who cares? We’re not dealing with the future. Right now, Christianity makes sense of the origin of life, and atheism does not. Second, if a lab experiment takes place that shows we can engineer the conditions for life to form, we’ll have successfully shown that an intelligent agent is capable of producing life! Thus, the Christian notion of “intelligent design” would be validated.
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