Is Presuppositional Apologetics Circular?

Presuppositional apologetics, also known as presuppositionalism, has become a popular way to defend the Christian faith.  However, it has not been wrought without its criticisms, one of which is that it is circular.

So, is presuppositional apologetics circular?

The short answer is yes, but it doesn’t have to be.

Before we get into the specifics on that, let’s start with what presuppositionalism is and where it came from.

What Is Presuppositionalism?

Presuppositionalism attempts to defend the Christian faith, not from a neutral position, but from a presupposition.  That is to say, there are certain assumptions that people take for granted as their starting point for arguing, such as assuming that truth exists or that the laws of logic are true and universal; those would be presuppositions.  Since everyone has presuppositions, there is no reason to forfeit yours in an effort to be neutral when the unbeliever is not willing to forfeit theirs.

For the presuppositionalist, their starting point (or presupposition) is assuming (or presupposing) that the Christian God exists.  They attempt to argue against the unbeliever by showing that the unbeliever has no warrant for their presuppostions if God does not exist, so they ultimately aim to reduce their opponents position to absurdity.

The presuppositionalist believes that without the Christian God, you cannot reason or know anything at all, so they simply presuppose that the Christian God exists in order to argue or know anything in the first place.  By assuming that the Christian God exists, they are able to know things, whereas the unbeliever is not.  The unbeliever attempts to argue against the very thing that allows him to know anything in the first place, and, so, defeats himself.

In short, the presuppositionalist presupposes that the Christian God exists, and everything else falls into place, defeating any opponent who tries arguing against it.

Where Presuppositionalism Came from

Probably one of the most familiar names in presuppositionalism is that of Cornelius Van Til.  Second to that, would probably be his student, Greg Bahnsen.

Van Til used this approach to apologetics in the late 1920s, and Bahnsen followed suit in the late 1970s.  However, this approach must have predated both of these individuals because John Calvin was critical of it apparently.  So, even if it was practiced prior to Bahnsen and Van Til, these two were at least the most known for it.

Presuppositionalism Today

Today, presuppositionalism is pretty widespread, but it seems like it primarily resides with those who’s theology is Calvinistic, which is slightly ironic because like I said, John Calvin was pretty critical of it, at least according to R. C. Sproul that is.

But . . . I think this goes to show just how influential Van Til was with his approach: it was probably because of him that it has had such an influence among Calvinists.

Van Til was Presbyterian, and Bahnsen was also Presbyterian; it’s no surprise that most presuppostionalists are Presbyterian (or Calvinist if prefer that moniker instead).

Popular presuppostionalists today include people like James White, Sye Ten Bruggencate, and Jeff Durbin, who are also Calvinists.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a presuppositionalist who isn’t a Calvinist, at least that’s been my experience. I’m sure they exist; I just haven’t found one.

Now, there are some Calvinists who don’t use this approach, and R. C. Sproul was one of them. You can almost say, “All presuppositionalists are Calivinists, but not all Calvinists are presuppositionalists.” That would be an interesting fact if true.

Presuppositionalism Is Circular

Now, I already mentioned that presuppositionalism is circular, but let’s take a closer look at that.

When a presuppositionalist attempts to argue against an unbeliever, they do so by trying to reduce the unbelievers view to absurdity.  They will say that if God does not exist, you cannot know anything at all.  The only way you can know anything is to assume that God exists, and He has made things known to you through the Bible, or divine revelation.  The presuppositionalist assumes that the God of the Bible exists, and that the Bible is divine revelation.  Therefore, all that is written in the Bible is obviously true and cannot be refuted.  In fact, any attempt to refute Christianity becomes self-defeating.  If Christianity is false, you cannot know anything at all.  So, in order to know anything, Christianity must be true.  They assume the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true, and that is obviously circular.

Now, every presuppositionalist I have ever encountered admits that it’s circular.  What’s more, is they have no problem with it being circular either. They say the reason for that is because the unbeliever’s reasoning is also circular.  I have heard lectures from Bahnsen himself admitting this.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the presuppositional approach is circular; those who oppose it know it, and those who defend it admit it.

The issue for me has always been that it doesn’t have to be circular, which I will get to in a minute. But first, let’s see if this approach to apologetics is even worthy of being called an apologetic. Unfortunately, some have said it’s not, so I’d like to address that next.

Is Presuppositionalism an Apologetic?

Now, before we get too critical of presuppositionalism, I want to confess that I think it does still have the right to be called an apologetic. Unfortunately, some have tried to argue that it doesn’t, and I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.

Christian apologetics can be defined as the branch of theology that seeks to give a rational warrant for Christian truth claims. But . . . this is exactly what presuppositionalists try to do; they just do it from unproven presuppositions, which makes their reasoning fallacious and circular.

Now, I’m being very gracious here because I don’t consider myself a presuppositionalst; this approach to apologetics is actually somewhat new to me. But I do genuinely appreciate apologetics in general, whether classical, evidential, or otherwise. So if there is a case to be made for presuppositionalism, I’d like to support it if I can. And if I’m correct, I think a case can be made for its legitimacy.

But let me say one last thing about it being circular . . .

Just because it’s circular doesn’t mean it’s false; it just means it doesn’t follow the steps of a valid argument. But think about that . . . Does it really have to? Isn’t that the purpose of classical apologetics and not presuppositional apologetics? Just because they don’t use a formal argument doesn’t mean what they are saying is false. In fact, I think the pressupositionalist is right with everything they say, I just don’t think it’s necessary to be content with reasoning in a circle because I think there is a better way.  So, let’s take a look.

A Better Way

Christian faith

Once again, an apologetic is only concerned with having a rational warrant for what one believes.  So long as the presuppostionalist has warrant for their presuppositions, there is nothing wrong at all with starting with those presuppositions. There’s no reason to say, “It’s okay that it’s circular because the unbeliever’s reasoning is circular, too.”  That is just weak and lazy! A lot more could be said about how a person arrives at their presuppositions in the first place. Why not just give a justification for your presuppositions? As a believer, you can do that by appealing to your own experience.

You see, if you are truly born again, the Spirit of God lives in you.  This is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to the truth of what is revealed in Scripture; this is the result of being transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Every believer has the Spirit of God living in them.  That is to say, that every believer has experienced God in their lives.

Philosophers call experiences like these properly basic beliefs.  These beliefs aren’t based on other beliefs in order to be justifiably held. For example, our experience of the external world affirms that the external world is real and is not an illusion, or that we are not a brain in a vat of chemicals, or a body in the matrix . . . whatever you want to imagine could actually be reality, and everything else could actually be an illusion.  But why think it’s an illusion?  There’s no good reason to doubt what your experience affirms.  Sure your experience could be mistaken, but until you have a defeater to suggest that your experience is mistaken, you are perfectly justified for believing what your experience tells you. The same goes for a belief in God, since God can be personally known and experienced.  Those who have experienced God in their lives, who have been truly saved, have a justifiable reason for believing that He’s real, and it’s that experience that justifies the presupposition that the Bible is true, or that Christianity is true.  You don’t need to arbitrarily assert that it’s true; God has given us the Holy Spirit to affirm that it’s true. So, the Christian God, in this sense, could serve as a properly basic belief, which would warrant the presupposition that the Christian God exists.

If the presuppositionalist were to start with their experience instead, they would effectively avoid arguing in a circle. Why not do that? It seems like a far more effective way to utilize a presuppositional approach.

It’s okay to have presuppositions, but we should also be willing to defend them if need be. In doing so, we will eventually reach a point where our properly basic beliefs are our starting points, and they will need no further defense or justification; we are justified in holding those beliefs until we have good reason to believe otherwise.

What if the unbeliever says they’ve never experienced God and so are justified for their position? That’s perfectly fine, but it is at that moment the presuppositionalist should go into an evidential or classical approach of apologetics in an attempt to defeat their belief. The fact is, we have good reason to believe that Christ was who He claimed to be, He was raised from the dead, and that Christianity is true. This argument and evidence based apologetic, if done well, should show the unbeliever he ought to be a Christian.

You can also think of it this way: If an unbeliever is blinded by their own unbelief and therefore deny the existence of God, why should we as believers allow their experience to trump what we clearly see? That’s like a blind man denying the physical world because they cannot see it; why should the people who can see it allow their belief to be refuted based on what other people cannot see? The answer is, we should’t. We’ve experienced it and are justified in believing it’s true.  Unless, of course, we are presented with a defeater. But an unbeliever’s denying the existence of God because they can’t see Him is not a defeater for those who can.

So, in a very real sense, you don’t even need arguments for properly basic beliefs, and this fits perfectly with the presuppositional approach. Arguments and evidences fall into a different type of apologetic I alluded to earlier: classical and evidential.

People who have experienced God, feel very strongly about it; it’s going to take a pretty powerful defeater to convince them otherwise, and I don’t think it will succeed in most cases.

This reminds me of my mother. Her belief in God isn’t based on arguments or evidences at all; it’s rooted in her own experience. She has experienced God personally. Do you think somebody is going to convince her that her experience was not real? I don’t think so. If you knew my mother, you’d understand.  But let me give you one last illustration.

Take, for example, the properly basic belief that you have an arm (or don’t have an arm for that matter). Can you imagine someone being able to convince you that you don’t have an arm when you really do, or vice versa? Absolutely not! For most Christians, their belief in God is also a properly basic belief, held just as strongly as any other.

So, if our presuppositions are properly basic beliefs, those presuppositions are rationally held.  And if that’s the case, they will serve as a better starting point for the person who wants to utilize presuppositional apologetics, without ever having to worry about arguing in a circle.