At a Glance: Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics is a method for defending the truths of the Christian faith. Presuppositional apologetics urges Christians “to presuppose the truth of Christianity and not to think they can or must arrive at Christian convictions at the end of a chain of secular reasoning.”[1] No one embarks on an investigation without any previous thinking (i.e. presuppositions), and this is certainly true for Christians who believe that God’s word is inerrant and authoritative.[2] Because of this, Christians should hold Christ as the ultimate authority not just at the end of an apologetic endeavor, but at the beginning.[3] A biblical worldview, therefore, is the foundation from which the Christian should build all opinions in apologetic debate.

Presuppositionalism is common among Reformed theologians and philosophers. Major proponents include Abraham Kuyper, Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Francis Schaeffer, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Vern Poythress, William Edgar, and Tim Keller.

There are five major themes of presuppositionalism.[4] First, traditional apologetics is futile because of man’s blindness to divine reality. Second, the skeptic presupposes God’s existence, even if he fails to admit it. Third, traditional apologetics foolishly honors the skeptic’s standards by not holding to the fact that belief in God is “basic.” Fourth, the burden of proof should fall on the skeptic. Fifth, apologetics should be done on a system level, so skeptics are required to defend their worldview on its own terms.

The advantages of presuppositionalism are many, but four are most significant. First, it takes into account what the Bible says about our obligation to presuppose 1) God’s revelation in all of life and 2) the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth.[5] Second, it takes seriously the fall of man and the unbeliever’s inability to reason his way to faith. Third, it understands the goal of apologetics as convincing people that God’s revelation is true and that it alone is the only basis for all reason, intelligence, and living.[6]

The major critique of the presuppositional method is the problem of circularity. With a closer look, this is not really a problem at all because the skeptic’s reasoning is circular as well. As Frame states, “It is part of the unbeliever’s depravity to suppress the truth about God, and that depravity governs their reasoning so that unbelief is their presupposition, which in turn governs their conclusion.”[7] Indeed, when arguing for an ultimate standard of truth, circular argument is unavoidable, whether one is a Christian or a skeptic.

In the final analysis, the presuppositional approach better accords with biblical doctrine than other positions.[8] The point of apologetics is to persuade someone to believe in the God of the Bible, and as Edgar notes, “Nothing else really matters. Ether God exists…or he doesn’t.”[9] For this reason, the Christian should let Christ have authority over his philosophy, reasoning, and argumentation—from beginning to end. For in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).

[1] Mark Coppenger, “Presuppositionalism,” in The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner, gen. eds. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2008), 402.
[2] John Frame, “Presuppositional Apologetics,” in IVP Dictionary of Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006) (accessed 6/1/2012).
[3] Greg Bahnsen, “Van Til’s Presuppositionalism,” Penpoint 6, no. 1. (January 1995)(accessed 6/12/2012).
[4] See Coppenger, “Presuppositionalism,” 402.
[5] Frame, “Presuppositional Apologetics,” (accessed 6/1/2012).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] William Edgar, “Without Apology: Why I Am a Presuppositionalist,” Westminster Theological Journal 58, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 19.
[9] Ibid.