A Foundational Self-Contradiction in Presuppositional Apologetics

People familiar with Christian apologetics know that Presuppositional Apologetics is often charged with relentless circularity. It is charged thus because it starts with the premise that the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true. This circularity is not what I’m talking about in this article. Instead, I want to address the very source of this apologetic.

John Frame, a popular Presuppositional theologian, describes the history of Presup in his book Christian Apologetics. He writes:

Van Til studied under idealists at Princeton University in the 1920s and emerged advocating a kind of transcendental method that was distinctively Christian. Like Kant, Van Til was unhappy with empiricism and rationalism, and with traditional ways of combining reason and sense-experience such as that of Aquinas. Kant found these approaches to knowledge logically invalid. But for Van Til, they were also wrong in a distinctively theological way. Traditional methodologies applied to apologetics, said Van Til, assume that human sense-experience, human reason, or both can adequately function without God, that is, “autonomously” or “neutrally.” So at the very outset of an apologetic argument, they concede the whole game. They adopt a presupposition contrary to the conclusion they wish to argue.

Frame, Christian Apologetics, 68.

It should be noted, for this will come up later, that Van Til assumed a Calvinistic theology. His use of the terms “autonomously” and “neutrality” indicate such. This assumption goes back to the doctrine of total inability: that man is unable in any way to seek God without a prior regenerative work. But let’s continue with Frame:

The only alternative, Van Til argued, is to adopt a theistic epistemology when arguing for the existence of God. Kant answered the question “What are the conditions required for an intelligible universe?” with his phenomena-noumena distinction and his transcendental aesthetic and analytic. Van Til answered that same question, but answered differently: the condition of universal intelligibility is the biblical God.

Frame, Christian Apologetics, 69.

This argument, then, is the core of Presuppositional Apologetics: that we must presume God (described Calvinistically) in our our arguments. But notice what Van Til does: he uses Kant’s transcendental argument to argue from a Calvinist worldview. His bases his system on the argument generated by an unbeliever. Frame says as much:

Kant believed in a sort of God, but he was not an orthodox Christian; indeed, he advocated the autonomy of human thought—its independence from any allegedly authoritative revelation—in the strongest possible terms.

Frame, Christian Apologetics, 67.

Thus, when Van Til used this argument, he found common ground with Kantian Philosophy, Christianized it, and built his apologetics on it. He then takes this philosophical starting point and found Scripture to match his argument. This use of Kant, however, undermines his claim. He presupposed a secular (Kantian) argument to argue that Christians must presuppose Scripture in our arguments and not secular (Rational, Empirical) arguments. So he denies the very premise upon which his system is based: a classic self contradiction.

Further, the only way this argument works is not by assuming Christian theism, but by assuming Calvinism—a sub-branch of Christian theism. If, however, you assume a non-Calvinistic point of view, the evidential and classical approaches work well. For, God uses those methods to shine his light upon unbelievers. And people are able to respond to that light when God draws them with it. Thus, when you do not assume Calvinism, you don’t need Presuppositional Apologetics.

At the end of the day, I don’t find Presuppositional apologetics convincing. It’s based on a self-contradiction, it assumes the philosophy of Calvin, and it ends up in desperate circularity. I urge Presup guys to really rethink their presupposition before arguing for it more.

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