There seems to be a common thread in presupp encounters all across the web these days. I’ve seen it on Twitter, in chat rooms, in FaceBook discussion groups, and on podcasts. It’s everywhere, and it’s growing, which is what concerns me. That thread is the use of a stunted, limited, incomplete apologetic. It frustrates the unbelievers we use it against, but not for the right reasons. It causes presuppers to be seen as irrational tricksters who don’t have anything valid to bring to the discussion. It is philosophically vacuous and ultimately does not honor God.
Before looking at the problem, let’s quickly review just what presuppositional apologetics is.
By way of review, a presuppositional argument is an indirect argument. It does not argue from premises that are given, to the conclusion that God exists. Rather, it demonstrates the absurdity of denying God’s existence by demonstrating what the result is when your presuppositions are not Christian Theistic.
The method proceeds by taking that which the unbeliever gives you – either explicitly or implicitly – and then shows how the unbeliever’s presuppositions, if true, could not account for this “given”, and that the Christian worldview, if true, would account for it. It can operate on any “given” at all, but it generally makes the most sense to work with whatever the unbeliever is bringing to you by way of a criticism of the Christian worldview.
For instance, if the unbeliever criticizes the morality of God’s actions in the Bible, then their “given” is the concept of an absolute moral standard. If they say that Christianity is full of contradictions, then their “given” is the law of non-contradiction. If they say that science proves the Bible is untrue, then their “given” is the uniformity of nature that the scientific endeavor depends upon. If the unbeliever claims they know the Bible is untrue, then their “given” is their ability to know anything at all. These are the most common “givens” that are used in this method, and all of them are valid, but they aren’t the only ones available. Anything that the unbeliever brings to you may be (and should be) used.
It is helpful to remember that this is a battle between two competing world views – yours (the Christian) and theirs (the unbeliever). Since there are two world views in competition with one another, it should be no surprise that there are two steps to the method. However, many are only offering up one step.
This is the very problem of which I speak. All too often only one of the two steps is being performed. All too often only half the story is told. More to the point, all too often only the negative case against unbelief is presented and the positive case is never revealed.
Let’s look at both steps, and see why they are both crucial.
Remember the “given” I mentioned above? A complete presupp method will first take that “given” and will show how their unbelieving friend’s presuppositions – if true – could not account for it. By “account for” I mean act as a foundation for, offer a basis for that “given” being what the unbeliever believes it is, or “underwrite” it in a philosophical sense. Accounting for the “given” is to offer a set of presuppositions which are consistent with and explanatory of the “given” in question.
Second, a complete presupp method will take this same “given” and show how Christian Theistic presuppositions – if true – would account for it. On the one hand, we are showing the failure of the unbeliever’s worldview. On the other hand, and just as important, we are showing the success of the Christian Theistic worldview. Both steps matter. Both steps are crucial.
It is not enough to criticize the unbeliever’s worldview and leave it at that. If that is all you do, you have only completed half the task at hand. If that is all you do, then you have failed. If you do not offer the good news of the Christian Worldview, then you’ve done nothing more than show that your opponent doesn’t have a leg to stand on. What you have not done in this case, is show that you do have a leg to strand on. After all, just because one person in an argument is wrong, doesn’t necessarily make the other person right.
If you are unsure whether you have done a good enough job presenting the Christian Theistic side of the story, consider how your opponent is responding to you. Listen to what they say about the argument you are making. Your opponent is likely to let you know if you have failed in presenting the second step, even if they don’t expressly know that is what they are doing.
Here are some things to look for. If your opponent says something like “you are in the same boat as I am” or “we all suffer the same limitations” or “just because I don’t have an answer, it doesn’t mean God exists”, then you have likely failed in presenting the Christian Worldview. Why? Because the Christian worldview, if true, would answer these complaints before they were ever made.
Let’s look at an example of a common criticism that stems from an all-too-common way presupp is presented. Let’s say your opponent argues that there is no way to know for sure whether God exists. Of course, on their worldview this would be true (not only because no god exists in their purportedly true worldview, but more importantly because their worldview does not offer them any tools that would lead them to any gods with any sense of certainty). You can (and should) agree with them that if their worldview were true, then they would be right. Then you must remind them that there are two worldviews being compared, and that if your worldview were true, then it is possible to know for certain that God exists. In fact, in the Christian worldview, every person knows that God exists.
Of course, they may complain very loudly at this claim of yours, but that complaint is easy enough to silence. Simply ask them – “My unbelieving friend, if the Christian Theistic worldview, as I have presented it, is true, then does everyone know God exists?” Now, of course you can only do this if you actually have presented the Christian worldview. That’s step two. Hopefully you did both steps.
If you did, then they have to answer “yes”, if they are to answer truthfully. They may not agree that the Christian worldview is true, but they don’t have to agree with you that it is true in order to agree that if it is true then everyone knows God exists. Help them see this truth. After all, you would have to agree with them that if their worldview is true then the Christian God of the bible does not exist. You don’t agree that it is true, but you can agree with the consequences of it being true – if it were true.
Notice what was key in the above exchange. You sharing the Christian worldview, and how it answers a particular complaint that they made – knowing God exists, in this case. If you never got to step two, then you would have nothing to appeal to in order to show that it is possible to know God exists if Christianity is true.
This takes work. This means studying the types of complaints that unbelievers might raise and being ready to answer them from scripture. Just do it.
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