Reprinted from the January 2014 issue of “Gospel Advocate” Magazine.
When I was about 10 years old, I asked my mother how we knew that the Bible is from God and other books are not. My mother gave me good reasons for our conviction that the Bible is from God. She did not tell me to stop asking, to repent for doubting, and to just assume that the Bible is from God. This would have been the presuppositionalist response. Such an answer would have helped me little as a child, and it would help me even less as an adult.
Presuppositionalists say that we should simply accept the truth of Christianity’s claims without any evidence (e.g., Frame, “God’s Revelation”). Allegedly, if you have a heart for the Lord, you don’t need reasons; if you don’t have a penitent heart, then no reasonable argument is going to help you be saved.
Apologetics, however, is about giving reasons for the hope we have as Christians (1 Peter 3:15). Clearly our attitude in presenting these reasons is to be gentle and respectful, but what is our apologetical method to be?
Some apologists use evidence to support their claims. For example, if I claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, I should be able to offer reasons for my belief. But presuppositionalists say we should use evidence only to refute false views (e.g., Bahnsen, “Presuppositional Reasoning”). They say: “Prove the false view to be false, but do not prove the true position to be true. Just believe it.” Should we take this approach? Many folks do, even if they do not use the fancy word “presuppositional.”
Proof and Evidence
A proof is a statement whereby a conclusion is shown to follow necessarily from premises. Consider a simple, deductive proof:
(1) If X is true, then Y is true.
(2) X is true.
(3) Therefore, Y is true.
Now let’s plug in an argument:
(1) If the Bible is the Word of God and teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead, then Jesus was raised from the dead.
(2) The Bible is the Word of God and teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead.
(3) Therefore, Jesus was raised from the dead.
Of course, we do not always arrange our arguments in such a formal way, but it can be helpful. Also notice that just because we have stated a belief in a tidy way does not mean we have really proven anything. We still need evidence to show that each statement in the proof is true.
What kind of evidence is required to prove a claim? Some people believe that we must rely totally on empirical evidence (i.e., the five senses). However, many of our most settled beliefs are not founded upon the five senses. For example, I have never seen my own mind, but I have good reason to believe that my mind exists. I have never seen London, England, but I certainly believe that London exists. It is not always necessary for beliefs to be verified through the five senses.
In Christianity, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Many wish to take this verse as contrasting faith with proof. However, Paul’s contrast is between that which is believed on the basis of empirical observation and that which is believed on the basis of some other evidence. We have not seen the Lord with our own eyes; thus, to believe in Him, we cannot rely on empirical evidence. We must “walk by faith.”
Our reliance on non-empirical evidence in no way weakens our belief in God or in Christianity. In fact, there is a sense in which theism and Christianity are both supported by precisely the same kind of evidence that is required in a contemporary courtroom. To support theism, we have the evidence of a world that could exist only if there is a Creator (Romans 1:20). To support Christianity, we have the eyewitness testimony of the most reliable witnesses (1 John 1:1-3).
God has never expected people to believe in Him or His revelation without offering sufficient reasons to satisfy our rational natures (see Isaiah 1:18; Hebrews 1:1-2; Acts 2:16-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; Titus 1:9; 1 John 4:1). Apologetics is simply an attempt to use our God-given rationality in concert with the evidence made available to us.
I was once at an event to speak on apologetics when a gentleman (call him Bob) told me that I was presenting apologetics wrongly because I was presenting nonbelievers with evidence to convince them of the truth. Bob explained that what these sinners needed was not evidence or argumentation, but a change of heart. Bob was saying that because nonbelievers have a moral roadblock or an inclination that keeps them from believing, it does no good to appeal to them with rational argumentation.
Why do folks like Bob dismiss the importance of evidence? One reason is this: Presuppositionalists think that nonbelievers know the truth deep down, but “suppress” it because they do not “see fit to acknowledge God” (Romans 1:18, 28 esv). In other words, the nonbeliever’s problem is strictly moral, not intellectual. Only after he repents will he be able to acknowledge the truth of what he already knows (cf. Frame, “The Unbeliever’s Knowledge”).
But notice that Romans 1:18 cannot mean that a person refuses to assent to what he already knows, in light of what verse 20 says about the sinner’s failure to deal properly with the evidence: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Similarly, Romans 1:28 is not specific about why people “did not see fit to acknowledge God.” Perhaps they misunderstood the evidence; perhaps they had some inclination against God. The fact is that the human intellect and the human will both contribute to human action and belief. People may deal wrongly with the evidence, but they still need the evidence. Some saw Christ’s miracles and disbelieved. They failed to draw the right conclusions from the signs, yet they still needed the signs (John 3:2). Others saw the same miracles and believed (20:30-31).
So I admitted to Bob that nonbelievers need to repent. Then I asked Bob whether the following scenario is possible: A person wants to believe in God but does not feel justified in believing in God because of all the evil in the world. Bob agreed that such was possible. I then asked Bob if a rational argument (such as Thomas B. Warren presents in Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?) might ever be necessary for someone to come to belief. Bob tacitly admitted that evidence can be important in convicting the nonbeliever.
Finally, consider this: Someone like Bob, who has rejected the use of rationality to test his own beliefs, is faced with a serious philosophical problem. If he does not disprove every possible belief system other than the one presented in the Bible, then he can never be sure he has the correct belief system, for the one belief system he has failed to falsify just might turn out to be the right one! Or the one system he has presupposed to be true just might turn out to be another false system. He can know his system of belief is correct only after examining the evidence that supports the truth.
You do not have to be a presuppositionalist in order to presuppose some things. In fact, all rational people must presuppose the basic rules of reasoning (e.g., a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense). It is impossible to offer reasons for such principles, so they must be presupposed.
Using the rationality God gives us, we must convince men of the abundant evidence that God has given for the veracity of the Scriptures. The world has good questions for those of us who believe and follow Jesus Christ. May God help us as we prepare to give those around us reasons for our hope. o
Caleb Glenn Colley is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bahnsen, Greg. “Presuppositional Reasoning With False Faiths.” Answers in Genesis. <http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2009/04/08/presuppositional-reasoning-false-faiths (2009)>.
Frame, John M. “God’s Revelation Our Presupposition.” Audio Lecture. Reformed Theological Seminary. <https://itunes.apple.com/us/course/gods-revelation-our-presupposition/id537705979? i=117079046&mt=2 (2012)>.
Warren, Thomas B. Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? Ramer: National Christian Press, 1972.