Christian Apologetics: Presuppositionalism

apologeticsby Jed Kampen

A few years ago I heard about a man who was convinced he was dead. His wife was obviously very concerned about him, so she took him to see many friends, counselors, psychologists, even pastors, and no one could convince him he was dead. Finally, in desperation, she took him to see a medical doctor. The doctor asked the man, “Do you believe that dead men bleed?” The man thought about it and answered, “Well, I suppose their heart isn’t beating so, no, dead men don’t bleed.” The doctor then took a needle and pricked the man on the finger. The man stared at his bleeding finger, and the lights in his eyes came on, and he exclaimed “Well would you look at that. Dead men do bleed.”

(Read the first post in this series “Christian Apologetics: What’s the Point?”)

You might be wondering why I told that story (I think it’s fictional, by the way). This post is going to discuss what’s called presuppositional apologetics, one of the major schools of apologetics. Central to understanding presuppositional apologetics is understanding what is meant by the term presupposition, and the guy who thought he was dead will help us do so.

I.What is a presupposition?

So what is a presupposition? A presupposition is a core belief or core commitment that we use to evaluate other beliefs or commitments. “Pre” in this sense is not “pre” as in prior in time, as if you make up your mind beforehand. Instead, it means “pre” as in basis or eminence. A presupposition is foundational to your other beliefs and provides a basis or framework for your other beliefs. Additionally, a presupposition is not a matter of the mind only – it’s not a hypothesis or a purely cognitive supposition. It is a commitment – a matter of the mind and heart.

To reiterate, a presupposition is a core commitment that is used to evaluate everything else. I’ll use those two terms interchangeably throughout this post – presupposition and core commitment.  So, in the story of the man who believed he was dead, he had two beliefs to which he was committed.  What were they? 1) that he was dead. 2) that dead men don’t bleed. When presented a conflict between those two beliefs, what did he do? He showed us that one of his commitments, his beliefs, was more foundational than the other, so he evaluated the one on the foundation of the other. His core commitment or presupposition was that he was dead. So, when he saw that he was bleeding, he revised his other belief (namely that dead men don’t bleed), in light of his core commitment.

Another example of how this works could be a naturalist – someone who believes that there is a natural explanation for everything. In other words, there is only autonomous impersonal science, and nothing supernatural. Suppose you are talking to him and provide him with the best evidence for Christ’s resurrection.

Further suppose that he accepts your evidence and now views Christ’s resurrection as a fact. Does this mean that he will repent and believe? Maybe – if the Holy Spirit changes his heart. But he could also respond by saying “Jesus rose from the dead. Interesting. Weird stuff happens every day. I’m sure there is a natural explanation for it, we just don’t know about it yet.” You see, his presupposition is that there is only the natural world. You presented him with a fact, but because of his presupposition he viewed that fact in a certain way.

So, we see that presuppositions are core beliefs that determine what a person accepts as fact and how they interpret that fact. Our presuppositions are our core beliefs and commitments, and are therefore are our most tightly held beliefs and commitments and are those that are most resistant to change[1]. Presuppositions are closely related to worldview, but we won’t get into that right now.

So, what, then, is presuppositional apologetics? Presuppositional apologetics is an approach to apologetics that takes into account presuppositions. It asks the question “what do we have as our ultimate commitment?” Presuppositional apologetics is based on the idea that the bare facts won’t convince anyone, because no one is neutral toward facts. Everyone has core commitments, and those core commitments are what people use to accept or reject facts and decide how to interpret facts.

Presuppositional Apologetics teaches that everyone has presuppositions. Everyone has core commitments by which they interpret everything else. Presuppositional apologetics also teaches that unless we engage with someone’s core commitments, we cannot expect to see any substantial change in a person. Getting a naturalist to belief in Christ’s resurrection does nothing to change him in any real way unless he gives up his autonomous impersonal naturalism and repents and believes.

II. What are the presuppositions of unbelief?  

Because apologetics is an exchange between two people, a believer and an unbeliever, who each have presuppositions, we should understand their presuppositions better. So, what are the core commitments of unbelievers?

To answer that question, let’s start where the Bible starts in Genesis. In Genesis 3, we see the start of unbelief. God made Adam and Eve, entered into relationship with them, and revealed himself to them. They were God’s creatures, living in God’s world, believing God’s word, and worshipping God. But something went terribly wrong. Even though they were God’s creatures, living in God’s world, and knew the truth about God because God had shown it to them, they doubted God’s word and suppressed the truth that they knew about him. And then they hid from God, because their relationship with him changed. Before, it was a relationship of love – but after their disobedience, it turned to a relationship of wrath.

And that is what Adam’s children have been doing ever since. Adam’s children have been, and still are, God’s creatures, living in God’s world, knowing the truth about God because God has shown it to them. But instead of worshipping him, they doubted God’s word and suppressed the truth that they knew about him. And they hide from God.

A few points that come out of Romans 1:18-32.

  1. Unbelievers know God. Unbelievers know truth about God (vs 19) because God has shown it to them. In fact, unbelievers don’t just know about God, they know God (vs. 21).
  2. But instead of worshipping him, they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They hold God down. They exchange the truth of God for a lie. They claim to be wise but are fools because they exchange God for images. Unbelievers know God’s law (vs 32). Unbelievers are not neutral, they are in rebellion against the God that they know. Just like Adam and Eve, all of Adam and Eve’s descendants have questioned God’s word, asking “did God really say” and by their sinful nature follow their own word instead.
  3. The knowledge of God that all people possess entails covenantal obligations. Unbelievers are obligated to keep God’s law, and are accountable to him for their rebellion. Therefore, unbelievers are under God’s wrath. Unbelievers have a relationship with God, but it’s a relationship of wrath.
  4. “The suppression of truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute.”[2] In other words, it’s total in scope, meaning every area of unbelievers’ lives (will, intellect, affections) is affected by the suppression of the truth, but the unbeliever cannot absolutely suppress the truth that he knows. Have you ever tried to hold a ball underwater at a pool? Two things happen, right? The ball keeps popping up, and you have to touch the ball to hold it under. That’s how the suppression of the truth for the unbeliever is. Because all truth is God’s truth, and every fact is the way it is because of the way God is, God’s truth keeps popping up in an unbeliever’s life and he has to be in contact with it in order to suppress it[3].

In 1 Corinthian 2, unbelievers reject the cross and see it as folly. God’s wisdom is not a wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age. Unbelievers put their epistemological and moral hope in the wisdom of this world and reject the wisdom of the Spirit. “There is no knowledge of God resident in unbelievers or accessible to them that reduces the eschatological void that separates them from saving knowledge of God.”[4]

This is because no one understands the things of God except the Spirit of God. Vs 14: the natural person (the unbeliever) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are discerned only with the aid of the Holy Spirit[5]. The unbeliever does not submit to God as he has revealed himself in his Word and Spirit, and therefore can’t make sense of God, himself, or the world. Rebellion and rejection and suppressing the truth are his commitments.

How do we summarize the condition of the unbeliever? How about the passage from a recent sermon at my church? Isaiah 6:9-10. “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” The unbeliever has a commitment. But it’s a commitment to autonomy, to the wisdom of this age. It’s a commitment to suppressing the truth of God and rebelling against him and exchanging the truth of God for a lie.

Those are the presuppositions of unbelievers. Those are the core commitments of their hearts and minds. Those are the commitments the unbeliever uses to decide whether or not to accept something as fact. Those are the commitments he uses when deciding how to respond to evidence. And that is why presuppositional apologetics says that one cannot just address facts when doing apologetics.

The unbeliever is surrounded always and everywhere with facts and evidences that testify to the truth and glory of God. But because of the unbeliever’s presuppositions and core commitments, the unbeliever suppresses the truth of God. That is why apologetics must account for and engage the unbeliever’s presuppositions and core commitments.

III. What should be the presuppositions of the believer?

If those are the presuppositions of the unbeliever, what should our presuppositions be as believers? Presuppositional apologetics teaches that the believer must presupposes God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. God as he has revealed himself in the Bible is our core commitment, and this means that God as he has revealed himself in his Word is our ultimate authority.

Why does the presuppositional apologist presuppose God?

1) First, as I’ve already written, every single person already has a commitment. This is because we are covenant creatures. Everyone is in covenant with their creator, and that covenant is either characterized by wrath in Adam or by grace in Christ. There is no neutrality. Either someone is in Adam and their commitment is to rebellion and to the wisdom of the world, or someone is in Christ and their commitment is Christ and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. There is no neutrality. The wisdom of the world does not understand the things of God and misunderstands literally everything in Creation because it tries to define truth apart from God, who is capital “T” Truth. All facts are God’s facts and are the way they are because of the way that God is. So why would we try to talk about truth apart from referencing God himself? That’s tantamount to trying to describe an image in a mirror without reference to the thing the mirror is reflecting. The history of philosophy is a history of failure because it is a history of trying to define God’s world apart from him and that cannot be done. So, we must presuppose God. Jesus is Lord, we me must live our lives under his Lordship. Apologetics is no exception. He must be our most foundational commitment. There is no neutrality. We cannot be neutral, because there are only two kinds of wisdom: the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of the Spirit. There are only two responses to God’s revelation: rejection or worship. We are in Christ and have the Spirit. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, says Paul in Colossians. And we have the mind of Christ, as 1 Corinthians 2:16 says. Christ is Lord and he is our authority.   We can know things rightly because the I AM condescended to reveal himself on a cross and die so that when He died, we died. When he rose, we rose. We’re no longer under wrath but now we are under grace. We no longer suppress the truth but in Christ we worship God. Our commitments, our presuppositions, have changed! So why would we ever want to give up our Christianity in the name of neutrality to try to engage with an unbeliever on quote on quote neutral ground. The unbeliever is not neutral. And we shouldn’t be.

2) The second reason the presuppositional apologist presupposes God is that it is only “the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from the one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.”[6] Only the Holy Spirit can change a person from being in Adam to being in Christ. And he uses the truth of the one true God as he has revealed himself, especially in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we have to argue for Triune God as he’s revealed himself, not generic theism. Generic theism is idolatry because it is again an attempt to believe in something or worship something without reference to the one true God.

3) The third reason is that this is the way that ultimate authorities work. Ultimate authorities have to appeal to themselves. If you can get behind or below an ultimate authority to try to validate it, then what you’ve done is just made your ultimate authority appeal to another authority to get its authority. And then we have to ask the question whether or not it is still an ultimate authority. If the Bible is my highest authority, but I try to appeal to something else to show that, what have I done? I’ve shown that whatever that something else is actually ranks higher than the BIble as an authority. But isn’t that circular? Yes, but that’s how ultimate authorities work. Every ultimate authority has to appeal to itself. And we cannot have two ultimate authorities. We cannot use autonomous reason to argue for the authority of the Bible because the Bible says autonomous reason is idolatry and rebellion against the truth.

IV. Where does this leave us?

How does knowing what we just discussed about commitments work out in apologetic conversations? Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his fooly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

I said earlier that presuppositional apologetics teaches that presuppositions or core commitments must be accounted for and engaged when doing apologetics. So how do we do that?

Proverbs 26:5-6 lays out the basic approach. The presuppositional apologist handles the issue of commitments in two ways.

  1. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

What does this mean? The unbeliever has a commitment. His commitment is to autonomy and rebellion. There are no neutral commitments. So, we don’t join the unbeliever in his commitments to argue for the truth of God. Because the unbeliever’s commitments lead away from God, not to God.

The way that we argue for the truth of God is using the truth of God. All truth is God’s truth and we must rest on God as he has revealed himself in scripture as our authority. Our apologetic must be governed by Scripture at every point, otherwise we will be joining the unbeliever in his folly. And it must preach the cross of Christ, because only the Holy Spirit can change a person’s commitments, and he does that by applying the truth of the gospel to a person’s heart. So we preach the gospel in our apologetics.

  1. But then what does verse five mean?

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. This means that we can and should join the unbeliever in his folly to show him where his folly leads. In other words, we try to show that given his presuppositions, commitments, worldview, he can’t make sense of the things he knows are true. It’s a reductio ad absurdum. We assume the negation of our conclusion (namely we assume the negation of the God of the Bible existing) and show that when you do that, as the unbeliever does, you are reduced to absurdity.

We say to the unbeliever, suppose you’re right. And then we press him and keep him there and force him to be consistent with his presuppositions and show that when he does that he is reduced to contradictions, arbitrariness, and absurdity. And then we preach the gospel and tell them that only by repenting and believing in Jesus Christ can they make sense of anything.

All the while, our ultimate commitment is to God and his word. Our presupposition, our core commitment, is that God is truth and his Word is truth. We have no other authority or standard for knowledge.

A wise man builds his house upon the rock. A fool builds his house on the sand. We don’t stand on the sand to argue for the solidity of the rock. We do two things. 1) we stand on the rock to argue that the rock is solid. 2) we stand on the sand and show the unbeliever that they are sinking. And then we tell them that the only rock is Jesus Christ and they need to repent and believe.

On Christ the solid rock we stand, even in apologetics. All other ground is sinking sand.


[1] Greg Bahnsen, “Defending the Christian Worldview Against All Opposition” conference lecture series, available at store.americanvision.org

[2] K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 52.

[3] I stole the illustration from Oliphint, too, if I remember correctly.

[4] Richard Gaffin, “Epistemological Reflections on 1 Corinthians 2:6-16” in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, edited by K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 39.

[5] 1 Corinthians 2:14.

[6] Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 50.

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