What is Presuppositional Apologetics?
Presuppositional - dealing with what we presuppose - our pre-beliefs (e.g. that our senses and reasoning are basically reliable).
Apologetics - giving a reasoned defense of the Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15).
For a clear explanation of this biblical apologetic see this 9 minute video by Mark Spence from Living Waters ministries: On the Box - Presuppositional Apologetics.
Jesus used Presuppositional Apologetics (PA), Paul and the Apostles used PA, and God uses PA. If you think that PA is just another tool in the evangelism toolbox then you don't understand PA - it is the toolbox, and the table, that holds all of the tools up.
Not just one Presuppositional Apologetic approach
It's important to clarify that there is not just one PA approach. There are different PA approaches being used by different people, and even with the same person different approaches and different conversations take place depending on the person we are talking with. Sye Ten Bruggencate is currently the most well known person using PA but there are others such as Jason Lisle and Jeff Durbin who use it in a more laid back fashion than Sye. (Check out this 11 minute video for an excellent example of PA in action: Militant Atheist vs Jeff Durbin). It's also worth noting that Sye's approach varies depending on who he is talking to and the context. When he is talking with people who are open to the truth the encounters are much more relaxed. One problem is that many professed atheists are not really interested in the truth and are very militant - especially many online atheists. I've noticed this myself too - when talking with people who are open and wanting to learn they thank me and tell me how interesting what I'm saying is. But then I'll ask the same question to someone who is not interested in truth and just wants to argue and they'll get defensive, angry, and generally do everything they can to derail the conversation and attack Christianity.
Presuppositional Apologetics is for all Christians
I'd also like to state that PA does not belong exclusively to Calvinists. Although many who use and teach PA are Calvinists, I am not, and I don't agree with those who say that I can't use it effectively because of that. I believe that God loves everyone, and that the verses about God hating Esau is referring to his actions. (It also seems to be referring to the descendants of Esau - the Edomites - rather than Esau as an individual, and the Hebrew word here may actually mean "loved less" rather than hated - see here and here. The Edomites come up again further down in this post. Also see Luke 14:26 for another example of where the word "hate" is used in a hyperbolic non-literal way when understood in context). My understanding is that verses that talk about God's predestination of the saints are to be understood more generally and refer to service rather than salvation - God predestined from the beginning to save lost sinners through Jesus Christ and those who would be saved would be predestined to do good works of service.
Whether you are a Calvinist or not it's important that you don't become too passive in your faith and simply accept everything that happens to you as if it were God's will. If a door in your life seems closed then sometimes it's a good idea to try and bust it down and to challenge the status quo. For more on this see the Wisdom section of my website and the teaching on toxic religion.
Jason Lisle has stated that PA can be used by all Christians as it is the biblical approach, and to this I totally agree. In the AiG article Testing Worldviews, the Bible, and Doctrine Jason said:
I believe the presuppositional approach can be used by any legitimate, non-heretical Christian denomination. Furthermore, I believe it should be used by all Christians because it is how the Bible itself tells us how to do apologetics (e.g., Proverbs 26:4–5). It is interesting that some denominations seem to be more inclined to use the method. It may be that they feel more comfortable using a technique that was refined so cogently by people sympathetic to their specific denominational views (such as Bahnsen and VanTil).
But let me point out that the method itself (in its most basic form) is not based on any modern denomination or modern individual. Rather, it dates back to biblical times. Jesus and the apostle Paul used the presuppositional approach masterfully in their respective earthly ministries. They dealt with the Christian worldview as a whole and never accepted the pagan standards of the day (“don’t answer”), while showing the self-refuting nature of such standards (“answer”). Paul’s apologetic to the Greeks in Acts 17:18–34 is a great example of this.
We at Answers in Genesis are comprised of Christians from many different denominations. We have friendly disagreements on things such as Calvinism-Arminianism, eschatology, and so on. Yet we, as a ministry, are presuppositional. We agree that presuppositional apologetics is the most effective and biblical way to defend the faith.
So let's have a look at some specific scriptures relating to the use of PA in the Bible...
Jesus used Presuppositional Apologetics
Jesus presupposed the truth of God’s word, took it as being literally and historically true and accurate, and preached it as such. He often asked questions and taught in such a way as to expose the faulty presuppositions of people who were denying God.
What's more, Jesus never used an evidential approach to try and prove the truth of the Scriptures based on evidence, and when asked for evidence by the devil to prove his deity he refused to put God to the test, but simply quoted Scripture to refute the devil.
Jesus put the Pharisees in the horns of a dilemma
“Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Have you never read?
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
This was said to the Pharisees, chief priests, and elders who spent most of their lives reading the Scriptures and would have been highly offensive to them! It would be like someone in a debate at Westminster Theological Seminary asking Scott Oliphint (a presuppositional theologian) - "Haven't you ever read the Bible verse where it says... ?"
Jesus sometimes refused to give evidence
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.” (Matthew 16:1-4)
Jesus refused to give evidence (a sign) when asked for it by those just wanting to test him.
“The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.” (Mark 8:11-13)
This came just after he fed the 4000! I'm not sure whether the Pharisees were there when that sign took place but even if they were they wouldn't have believed it, and just like many professed atheists today they'd have found some way to explain it away. As the scriptures say in Luke 16 in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man:
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:27-31)
Jesus used Reductio Ad Absurdum
Reductio ad absurdum means to reduce the argument of an opponent to absurdity by taking their position to it's logically absurd conclusion. This is a powerful form of debate all great debaters use, including Jesus. I use it in evangelism and have used it in my website www.godorabsurdity.com.
An example of Jesus using reductio ad absurdum is when he told the Pharisees that they obeyed the law to the extreme - even tithing their garden herbs - but they neglected the most important part of the law - loving God and loving people. (Luke 11:42-46).
The purpose of reductio ad absurdum is to expose the foolishness of the false beliefs people are believing in the hope that they will abandon them and embrace the truth. (See Refuting Compromise and the section on the 'Challenge-Reposte Paradigm'.)
Paul used Presuppositional Apologetics
Before Agrippa and Festus (Acts 25-26)
|Apostle Paul On Trial by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875. Agrippa and Berenice are both seated on thrones.|
Although Agrippa was a Roman and well educated under the Roman system he was a Jew. He was part of the line of Herod and was ethnically an Idumean - an Edomite descended from Esau. So because of this he treated Jews very sympathetically, but in reality he was a puppet ruler put in place by the Romans and so had to tow the official party line in terms of Roman laws.
According to another article about Agrippa the II:
"At least while he was in Judea he showed a superficial respect for Jewish religious practices; some scholars even claim that he was the Agrippa whose attachment to Judaism was praised by the rabbis."
Understanding Agrippa's Jewish roots helps to understand a bit better the context of this passage in Acts 26. Paul is also speaking to Festus and a number of other high ranking officials. (Acts 25:23)
“Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
The above question was asked by Paul to King Agrippa who could not believe the resurrection – Paul didn’t give him circumstantial evidence for the resurrection – he just boldly proclaimed the truth of it. If you accept the presupposition that God is God and created the whole universe then it's not a big deal to believe that he can do miracles such as raising a person from the dead.
Later in Acts 26 Paul recounts how God asked him 'why are you persecuting me?' Eventually by the end of the chapter Festus was so convicted he interrupted Paul.
"At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." (Acts 26:24)
This reminds me of some professed atheists who realise they can't give a good answer to our questions and so get angry with us and accuse presuppostionalists of being idiots!
Paul then asked him another presuppositional question:
"King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do." (Acts 26:27)
This put Agrippa in the horns of a dilemma - if he said "Yes," then Paul would be able to press him as to why he didn't believe in the one they prophesied about. If he said "No," then he'd be in trouble with the devout Jews who believed in the prophets as having spoken the very word of God. (Credit goes to my NIV Study Bible notes for that gem).
And Agrippa's response is very similar to many unbelievers when challenged with PA - avoid the question and mock:
"The Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts26:28)
Paul in Athens (Acts 17)
Acts 17 is another great example of Paul using PA. Paul in his argument presupposed the existence of the biblical God that all people know through general revelation, polemically argued against their false conceptions about God, and ended by challenging them to repent. This passage is rich in background and there is so much in it. Greg Bahnsen dedicates a whole chapter to discussing it in his excellent book on PA called Always Ready.
God uses Presuppositional Apologetics
Think about the many questions that God asked people in the Bible. Most of them were designed to expose to the people their presuppositions and false beliefs.
God to Adam:
"Where are you?... Who told you that you were naked?" (Genesis 3:9,11)
God knew where Adam was and that he was hiding because he had sinned but God wanted to help Adam to come to that realization himself. God must have been so grieved because of the broken relationship Adam and Eve had created by sinning, and like a loving father who catches their child doing something terribly wrong he wants them to take responsibility for what they've done - of course they played the blame game - Adam blamed Eve (and God - "the woman you gave me") and Eve blamed Satan.
“But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:9-13)
God to Cain
"Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" (Genesis 4:6-7) God knew why Cain was angry - but he wanted Cain to think about it and realise he had no good reason to be angry.
God to Elijah
"There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”" (1 Kings 19:9)
These are just a very small sampling of the times God asked searching questions to try and get people to face up to their sin and lies.
The Certainty of Biblical Faith
PA argues for the certainty of Christianity based on God's word as the ultimate authority, as opposed to evidential approaches that argue for the strong probability of Christianity based on the evidence. (There's nothing wrong with using evidence, but it should be used wisely within a PA framework that recognises that the core issue is the authority of God's word.)
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13 NIV)
“Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)
"....this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." (John 17:3)
“For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (Luke 21:15)
"Peter proclaimed, Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him [Jesus] both Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36).
"But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ." (Acts 9:22) NASB
For more on certainty - see "Certainty" - by John Frame.
Some Key Verses that are Important for Presuppositional Apologetics
Don't Answer / Do Answer Strategy
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4-5)
Everyone Knows God Exists
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles." (Romans 1:18-23)
"But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water." (2 Peter 3:5) (Other versions say "willingly ignorant", "willfully ignorant", "deliberately suppress"...)
God is Necessary for Knowledge
"My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments." (Colossians 2:2-4)
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Proverbs 1:7)
God is Necessary to Account for the Uniformity of Nature / Induction
"As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease." (Genesis 8:22)
“The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Hebrews 1:3)
God is Necessary to Account for the Reliability of the Senses / Reasoning
We are made in "the image of God" (Genesis 1:27) and so we know that our senses are generally reliable because God is a logical, consistent, and rational God.
“Ears that hear and eyes that see—the Lord has made them both.” (Proverbs 20:12)
“Come now let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18)
God is Necessary to Know Truth
"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)
"Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth." (John 17:17)
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16)
"Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
God vs "not-God" - There is No Neutrality - No Neutral Ground
Matthew 12:30 "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
Psalm 96:5 “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.”
Exodus 8:23 “I will make a distinction between my people and your people…”
Malachi 3:18 “And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.”
James 4:4 “You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
John 14:6 “Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Ephesians 4:17-18 “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.”
Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Some Presuppositional Questions to Think About
- According to scriptures such as Romans 1, does everyone know that God exists?
- Do people reject God's existence primarily because of a lack of evidence or because of their rebellion against God?
- Is the God of the Bible the conclusion of our argument or the necessary presupposition to begin any argument? (Proverbs 1:7)
There are so many other verses relating to Presuppositional Apologetics in the Bible. Let me know in the comment section below if I've missed any important verses that help illustrate PA.
For Further Reading / Research:
See my other blog posts: