How Much Do You Have to Hate Someone Not to Proselytize?

Francis Schaeffer on the Origins of Relativism in the Church

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Presuppositionalism in as Small a Nutshell as I Can Make

Every so often, someone actually takes the trouble to read the material about li'l ol' moi that I've linked to in the sidebar, and sometimes they notice that I'm a "presuppositionalist." Not having ever heard of such a thing before--relatively few people outside a seminary, and often not even within one, would be familiar with the term--they rush off to the Almighty Google, wind up with the Wikipedia article, seize upon some aspect of presuppositionalism that, on the surface, sounds outrageous, and then, without actually having grasped anything substantive about the subject, react to the idea of my presuppositionalism in much the same way one might react to the news that someone ate babies for breakfast.

It's really kind of amazing to watch.

Look, presuppositionalism is not, really, that big a deal. I am going to put the idea as simply as I can, in as small a space as I can, and maybe that will help the occasional person googling for the term out a bit.

Presuppositionalism is a variety of Christian apologetics--an approach, that is, that some Christians take to arguing for the truth of the Christian position. There are other varieties of apologetics. There is what some call evidentialism, which is, as you might have guessed, arguing from the available evidence--the evidence from the physical world, from history, and so forth. Then there is what some call Schaeffer's apologetics, which I think of as a variant of presuppositionalism. All have their uses, in my opinion. I can do the evidentialist thing. I have done it--done it well enough that I've left the people I was arguing with discussing things with practically fuming with impotent frustration. The evidence for Christianity is really very convincing and hard to refute if you give it a decent look. However, I have also had the experience of doing the evidentialist thing and finding, at the end of hours of discussion, my conversational partner saying, "I cannot refute your argument, but I still won't believe it!" Clearly, belief in the gospel doesn't just come down to the evidence. There is a lot more to that particular subject, though, and I don't propose to treat of it here; all I am saying in this space is that evidentialism alone isn't a completely adequate apologetic approach--hence my interest in presuppositionalism.

The big idea in presuppositionalism is that we all make certain assumptions--presuppositions--in our thinking and that there are logical consequences to those presuppositions. For instance, in writing this post, I do so presupposing that someone might read it, that someone might understand it, and so forth. One opens one's eyes on the presupposition that, under normal circumstances, one will be able to see. To try to make someone happy is to operate on the presuppositions that happiness exists and that people can experience it, and so forth. You get the idea so far?

The same kind of thing applies to religious thinking. If you start with the idea that there is no God, or that God is of this nature or that nature, there are certain necessary logical consequences to those presuppositions. For instance, if the universe that exists today did not start intentionally, with a creator God, then it necessarily follows that it started unintentionally. If there is no creator, then there is no creator's plan; the universe and everything in it are unplanned. You are unplanned, a mere accident of existence, as is everything about you and around you. Likewise, if God is impersonal, or panentheistic, or there are multiple gods, each of those have certain necessary logical consequences.

Still with me? Good. I thought so.

As far as the Christian presuppositionalist is concerned, it is impossible for certain things--many presuppositionalists would say anything--to make decent sense without the presupposition that the material in the Bible is actually true. It is not possible to make a good case for personality arising from a godless, impersonal universe. In a godless, impersonal universe, there is logically no purpose for love; it merely happens to have arisen by accident and proven to be a successful adaptive behavior. It becomes extremely difficult to talk about good and evil without appealing to some transcendant standard like that found in the will of a God. And so forth. The Christian presuppositional apologist will do his best to note the logical consequences of his conversational partner's presuppositions and point them out. We argue that if you start with God and His revelation in the Bible, the universe makes sense; if you don't, it doesn't and you don't.

And there it is in a nutshell. There have been whole books written on the subject, and I have necessarily been brief and probably not done the subject justice, but that should be enough for you to see that presuppositionalism isn't quite the bogeyman that some people make it out to be.


  1. I read the blog comment that (I am assuming) this article is in response to and to be completely honest, I had no idea what he was talking about.

    I admit that I am not a fully educated man and don't know a lot of big words so this whole presuppositionalist was a complete mystery to me.

    Thanks for the post to clear up what it mean. I would have looked it up on Wiki but probably would not have understand it anyway. LOL!

  2. I have to admit that I just don't get it. Maybe I don't know enough about philosophy to have a point of reference for some of the things this brings up, but I just can't get my head around it.