Thinking Biblically: An Introduction to Presuppositionalism

INTRODUCTION

Paul the apostle was no stranger to dealing with controversy; especially when that controversy was caused by mixing God’s wisdom with man’s wisdom. In 1st Corinthians 1-3, Paul essentially tells the Corinthians three things:

  1. Mixing autonomous human wisdom/philosophy with the Christian gospel destroys the gospel because the two are completely opposed to each other (1:18-21).
  2. The one doctrinal rock-bottom, foundational fact that the church must be built upon theologically is the scandalous message of Christ crucified; which is the very gospel itself (3:11). The church cannot be built upon any other presupposition[1], for any other presupposition results in eventual apostasy.
  3. The doctrine that is used to “build” on the foundation of Christ-crucified must consist of “quality materials”; meaning that solid, high-quality doctrinal truth must be taught to the church so that the church may grow and mature into a healthy body and she must continue to receive this type of healthy spiritual nourishment so as to avoid spiritual disease and death. This means that any human philosophy, ideology[2], or religious dogma that undermines the gospel must be rejected a priori (3:10, 12-15, 18-20).

APPLICATION/TEACHING

We will consider each of these three points in some detail, look at some historical examples of what ignoring them has done to the church, and think about how we can avoid these same traps. But before we do so, we need to talk about what exactly “presuppositionalism” is. Presuppositionalism is a method of Christian apologetics developed by the late Dr. Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) and popularized through the public debates and lectures of one of his former students, the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995). Van Til was Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from its inception in 1929 until he retired in 1975. Presuppositionalism can be defined as follows,

“. . . Van Til’s distinctive approach is ‘presuppositionalism’, which may be defined as insistence on an ultimate category of thought or a conceptual framework which one must assume in order to make a sensible interpretation of reality: ‘The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the “facts” and the “laws” intelligible. The question is as to what the “facts” and “laws” really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes they are? Are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are?” (Defense of the Faith, Philadelphia, 1967).

“Not only to ‘prove’ biblical Christianity but to make sense of any fact in the world Van Til holds that one must presuppose the reality of the ‘self-contained’ triune God and the self-attesting revelation of the Scriptures. From this basis, the redeemed person then reasons ‘analogically’, attempting ‘to think God’s thoughts after him’. This means humans may know reality truly (for God, in whose image they are created, knows it truly), but not exhaustively (for God is infinite and they are finite).

“The presuppositionalist endeavors to convince the unregenerate first by demonstrating that, on unregenerate presuppositions of chance occurrence in an impersonal universe, one cannot account for any sort of order and rationality. Next, he tries to show that life and reality make sense only on the basis of Christian presuppositions.

“Van Til vigorously criticized the traditional apologetic approach of both Catholics and Protestants as failing to challenge the non-Christian view of knowledge, as allowing sinners to be judges of ultimate reality, and of arguing merely for the probability of Christianity.”[3]

With that definition in mind, we will now look at point one.

I. Autonomy versus Theonomy (1 Corinthians 1:18-21).

Because the intellect, emotions, and will of man are corrupted thoroughly by sin, the natural man is characterized by a desire for self-sufficiency and independence from God. This desire can be best characterized by being a law unto one’s self, and he shows this by continually creating philosophies and religions that allow him to live and exist independently of the True and Living God. This means that sinful man will seek to be the judge of what constitutes ultimate reality without reference to what God says about it in His word. This is what it means to be autonomous. Here is a fine example of a sinner who glories in his autonomy:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”[4]

I appreciate this type of candor because many unbelievers consistently refuse to admit this type of presuppositional bias or ultimate “faith” commitment.[5] Instead, they will say things like, “Christians have faith whereas we have reason”; as if the two are mutually exclusive.[6] In 1 Corinthians 1:18-21, Paul was deriding the Corinthians for doing the same thing modern naturalists are doing; undermining God’s wisdom as revealed in apostolic doctrine by determining that the basic principles for determining what is true and false about wisdom can be found in themselves instead of solely within God’s revelation. They showed their sinful autonomy by undermining the gospel by mixing it with the prevailing philosophy of their day. The Corinthians wanted to take the prevailing autonomous philosophical beliefs and synthesize them with the apostolic message of Christ crucified; a move that would not only cost them their intellects but also their souls should they continue down that road (1:17, 21; 3:19, 17). Paul was calling them back to God’s standards of wisdom as displayed in the cross; he was calling to be theonomic[7] in their thinking; meaning, he wanted them to follow Christ’s Law and standards instead of man’s sinful standards for determining what constitutes ultimate spiritual truth and reality.

In our modern context, the confusion created by starting with man’s autonomous sinful standards for determining what truth is manifests itself in a plethora of ways, especially when it comes to the debate regarding what constitutes ultimate reality: material things only, or material and immaterial things. When one begins with the fundamental presupposition that God has spoken in the Scriptures in Christ’s Law-word, you are left with the only worldview that can consistently allow for immaterial, universal, and abstract things like laws of science, laws of logic, and abstract concepts. For example, when you reject God’s wisdom about creation as revealed in Scripture in favor of the prevailing secular paradigm of our day (i.e., philosophical materialism), you end up holding to a worldview that cannot account for the very things that it uses to argue against Christianity, things like immaterial laws of logic. I’ve reduced several philosophical materialists to absurdity via arguments like these:

Argument One:

  1. Material things are extended in space.
  2. Logical laws are not extended in space.
  3. Therefore, logical laws are non-material.
  4. Materialism posits that non-material entities do not exist.
  5. Therefore, logical laws do not exist.

Argument Two:

  1. Laws of logic are objective, universal entities that apply to all people, places, and times.
  2. Materialism holds that only particular entities have ontological existence.
  3. No material thing is a universal entity.
  4. Logical laws are not material things.
  5. Therefore, logical laws do not exist.

The purpose of both arguments is to show that upon the assumptions of the materialist (i.e., all is matter), they refute themselves. This is because if immaterial logical laws cannot exist upon their own standards, then the materialists cannot use logic to argue against Christianity or else they have to give up their materialism and become Christians in order to be intellectually honest. But they are not going to give up their unbelief so easily. We must continue to press the antithesis between their own assumptions about reality versus how they really behave in the world. Again, materialists must use the immaterial laws of logic every day, especially when attacking Christianity. Therefore, things like immaterial logical laws exist and consequently, materialism is false. Worse, when materialists use the immaterial laws of logic everyday, yet their worldview doesn’t formally recognize immaterial things, they show that they are irrational; the very thing they accuse Christians of being. Usually, they ignore this inconsistency, or modify their original position post hoc without doing what they really need to do: repent of their sins and embrace Christ as Lord and Savior since Christians have the only worldview that can provide the sufficient preconditions for the intelligibility of reality. This brings us to our next point, a discussion of the fundamental presupposition of Christianity: the gospel of Christ crucified.

II. The Fundamental Presupposition of Christianity: The Gospel (1 Corinthians 3:11).

Paul calls the Corinthians to ditch any move towards mixing man’s autonomous wisdom with the wisdom of God as displayed in the cross; for to do so not only nullifies the power of the gospel and the wisdom of God as displayed in the gospel but also brings spiritual disaster (cf. 1:17, 3:11). It is no different today. Consider the fact that if one rejects a literal Genesis in favor of Neo-Darwinian philosophy then this can put them on a slippery slide into unbelief. If we re-interpret God’s Word in Genesis to fit man’s fallible opinion, then ultimately, it would only be consistent to apply this same method of interpretation to Christ’s Resurrection; an absolutely essential part of the gospel (cf. 1st Corinthians 15:3-4, 14, 17-19). A newspaper report confirmed that indeed this is indeed happening: “A growing number of liberal Christians and scholars do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.[8] But what could be the ultimate cause of such a slide into unbelief in an area that is so vital and central to the Gospel, as the Resurrection of Christ? I suggest that one of the major reasons is that as people have compromised the book of Genesis with evolutionary humanism and as a result, increasing numbers have started to consistently apply the same method of interpretation to the rest of the Bible. If this is carried out consistently, it will eventually lead to atheism. Listen to what the apostate Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong stated regarding the gospel,

I live on the other side of Charles Darwin. And Charles Darwin not only made us Christians face the fact that the literal creation story cannot be quite so literal, but he also destroyed the primary myth by which we had told the Jesus story for centuries. That myth suggested that there was a finished creation from which we human beings had fallen into sin, and therefore needed a rescuing divine presence to lift us back to what God had originally created us to be. But Charles Darwin says that there was no perfect creation because it is not yet finished. It is still unfolding. And there was no perfect human life which then cor­rupted itself and fell into sin, there was rather a single cell that emerged slowly over 4½ to 5 billion years, into increasing complexity, into increasing con­sciousness.

And so the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the Fall becomes a nonsensical story. So how can we tell the Jesus story with integrity and with power, against the background of a humanity that is not fallen but is simply unfinished?[9]

And so, if the Bible is not accepted as true in its history, the Gospel story also comes to be rejected. Atheist Richard G. Bozarth also reflects this same attitude,

Christianity has fought, still fights, and will fight science to the desperate end over evolution, because evolution destroys utterly and finally the very reason Jesus’ earthly life was supposedly made necessary. Destroy Adam and Eve and the original sin, and in the rubble you will find the sorry remains of the son of god. Take away the meaning of his death. If Jesus was not the redeemer that died for our sins, and this is what evolution means, then Christianity is nothing.[10]

If Christ is not raised from the dead, then listen to what atheist biologist William Provine says logically follows,

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear . . . . There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.[11]

If the gospel is not true, then indeed we are above all men the most pitiful; for then the only other option is to embrace man as the supreme authority. If that is the case, then each person can determine what is right and wrong in his or her own eyes (Judges 17:6). This is exactly what mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer did. He lived his life acting consistently with his presuppositions, believing that Neo-Darwinian evolution was the true explanation of history, and therefore, it affected how he lived his life and caused him to have no regard for other people’s lives. He said:

If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing . . .[12]

Paul knew full well why the gospel had to be defended against efforts at combining it with the world’s autonomous philosophy: to do so consistently results in apostasy and spiritual death. This brings us to a common error made by good brothers in the Lord: giving up Jesus in order to defend Jesus.

III. Giving Up Jesus In Order to Defend Jesus: Autonomy in Practice versus Conviction in Mind (3:10, 12-15, 18-20).

The search for certainty has lead philosophers into various ways of answering the questions, “How do we find certainty? Do we need certainty?” and other questions like that. Christians apologists have done two things; the vast majority have done the one and I’m in the small minority that does the other. The vast majority say (1) we let the secular world determine the standards for obtaining epistemic certainty and then we as Christians come along and say “we can meet those standards.” So, we pass the test of those standards, therefore, you can say Christianity is certain. Now, it doesn’t take any sophisticated work in epistemology or logic to see that if that is your general approach, even if you can get to the conclusion that Christianity is certain (and I don’t believe anybody has done that, I mean there’s a whole lot more in-house talking amongst Christians about the certainty of our faith than there is conviction outside), but even if you get to that, you get to it at a very high price because Christianity becomes certain at the cost of what? Something being more certain that it; namely, those standards set by the secular world!

So whenever you have an apologetic system that argues, “You tell me what the standards of truth and certainty are and I’ll meet those standards and then you’ll see Christianity is true” – even if you get to that conclusion, you have to grant to your opponent that there is something of higher epistemic authority; namely, those very standards that have been delivered to you and by which you measured the truthfulness of Christianity.

Now there’s another fatal defect that goes beyond this; which is if you use this approach for defending Christianity, you will also end up saying (if you are consistent) “you don’t need Christianity for your standards.” Christianity at best becomes the conclusion of the system, not the heart of the system. You not only say that Christianity is less certain that those secular standards, you’ll end up indirectly saying that those secular standards make sense on their own. Again, this is another display of autonomy. Remember, something is autonomous when it’s independent, when it’s self-sufficient, when it’s a law unto itself. So, if we prove Christianity is certain by this method, we do so at the cost of granting that secular standards are more certain and that secular standards are autonomous. And, if I were an unbeliever that had some knowledge of philosophy and I realized that these were the implications of the approach I’d say “Even though you’ve proven the resurrection to me, I don’t need Christianity because my standards are sufficient as far as they go. And consequently, Christianity is at best an appendix to my system and not the heart of it. That’s one approach that is taken.

Another approach from a Christian standpoint, is to say, “There can be no certainty regarding anything without first assuming the truthfulness of Christianity.” Now, on that approach, instead of taking one standard that somebody else gives you, showing that you pass that standard, then concluding that Christianity is true, instead you say, “We can take anything in the world that anybody claims to know (i.e., “I know that that’s my car.” “I know that gasoline is combustible at 70 degrees” “I know that rape is wrong.”), anything that a person knows and challenge them to show how they could possibly know it if the Christian worldview were not true. This is really a turning of the tables – we’re saying that there can be no standards without Christianity. There can be no absolute standards, nothing can be known with certainty without the Christian worldview. Of course, that’s a much bolder claim and you can understand why people would shy away from it because it would seem to lead to the conclusion that unbelievers don’t know anything. But that isn’t what it leads to at all, it leads to the conclusion that unbelievers can know a lot of things, they just can’t account for what they know. Again, they can still know many things, but they can’t give an account of what they know. As Cornelius Van Til used to say, “Unbelievers can count, but they can’t account for their accounting.” So, unbelievers know plenty. My unbelieving physical therapy co-workers know a lot about anatomy, exercise physiology and so forth. But, if the Christian worldview were not true, my unbelieving co-workers couldn’t know anything about bones and muscles and couldn’t do their job. So, my unbelieving co-workers have a job in physical therapy not because their worldview is right, but because my worldview is right. Even though they are taking the measurements of joint angles, strength, and cardiac output, it’s only on the basis of a Christian outlook on life that anything makes sense. Science, math, morals, human dignity, or whatever else you can think of has its epistemological root in Christian theism. So, that should give you a heads up as to what Paul is getting at in the first three chapters of 1st Corinthians.

CONCLUSION

Interestingly in Matthew the 7th Chapter, Jesus our Lord teaches a story about the wise man who built his house upon the rock and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. We are all familiar with that story, but we often forget that Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “and My word is that rock.” Christ says that those who are wise build their lives, their outlook, their perspectives, and their worldviews on the rock of Jesus’ word. And those who don’t build their lives on His word are fools! Is it any surprise therefore that in 1 Corinthians 1:25 when Paul goes over his apologetic he says, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:25) For in its own wisdom the world rejects what it takes to be foolish (the preaching of the cross), but Paul says that this is the very wisdom of God; and to reject that wisdom in favor of the world’s wisdom is to end up becoming an intellectual and spiritual fool. So, there are worldviews in collision. That’s the situation right now and it was the situation in the church at Corinth. Today there is the secular worldview, the naturalistic worldview, the existentialist worldview, the relativist worldview, and any number of other options, and they all stand over and against the Christian worldview. How do you begin to defend the Christian worldview? I suggest you begin to defend it by first saying, “You can’t know anything for sure unless Christianity is true.” Or, if I’ve kind of lost you in all the detail, I’m going to put it in one sentence:

The best proof of the Christian God’s existence is that without Him you can’t prove anything.

That’s just a real pointed way of saying that the Christian worldview is indubitable because it provides the preconditions of knowledge and that I take to be the certainty of the Christian faith. Paul and the rest of the apostles knew of no other line of reasoning, for to them, the apostolic revelatory truth of Christianity as found in Scripture was more certain, more sure, and infallible than their own eyewitness experiences (2 Peter 1:16-19).


[1] A “presupposition” is an elementary assumption, foundational commitment, or basic perspective that is used in one’s reasoning that informs the process by which all other opinions are formed.

[2] An “ideology” is “a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.” See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ideology

[3] Sinclair B. Ferguson, ed., et al. THE NEW DICTIONARY OF THEOLOGY, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1998), 704-705.

[4] R. Lewontin, Billions and Billions of Demons, New York Review (9 January 1997): p. 31.

[5] Also, take note of scientist S. C. Todd’s presuppositional “faith” commitment to naturalism with this comment, Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.” S.C. Todd, correspondence to Nature 410 (6752):423 (30 September 1999).

[6] The false dichotomy of “faith versus reason” is a post-Enlightment formula that has no basis in Scripture. All people, regardless of their beliefs, have faith in order to be able to reason. The difference is the ultimate, foundational starting points for their faith: the infallible wisdom of God as revealed in Scripture versus man’s fallible and contradictory opinions as displayed in the history of Western philosophy. See also “Culture Wars: Bacon vs. Ham” at http://creationontheweb.com/content/view/181

[7] By using the word “theonomic”, I am not referring here to the school of thought known as Theonomic Reconstructionism, but instead I am making a general reference to the guidance that all believers enjoy by submitting to Christ’s commands as summarized in the New Testament epistles and some parts of the gospels.

[8] Roanoke Times, April 4, 1999, p. A1.

[9] Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV Compass interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong, by Geraldine Doogue, in front of a live audience at the Eugene Groosen Hall, ABC Studios, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia, 8 July 2000. Copied from transcript at , 6 August 2001.

[10] G. Richard Bozarth, “The Meaning of Evolution,” American Atheist, 20 Sept. 1979, p. 30.

[11] William B. Provine, Origins Research 16.1 (1994), 9.

[12] Jeffrey Dahmer, interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, Nov. 29, 1994.

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3 Comments on “Thinking Biblically: An Introduction to Presuppositionalism”


  1. Dustin,

    I could not find your name, but this seems like something you would write :) Have you ever thought about writing a pamphlet on a high school level explaining how one could not justify science, math, history, etc. without presupposing the Scriptures? I think it could be helpful for Christian youth (especially for those in the public schools).

    God Bless you brother,

    Benji


  2. Hi Benji,

    I apologize for not responding sooner, I’ve been busy with work. Yes, this article is my handiwork. I have thought about writing such a book, starting with this article. I actually did convert it to a handbook, but I think it needs more work and more development, especially with taking into consideration Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology as described in his Warrant trilogy.


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