Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (Rom.1:18). According to Cornelius Van Til this verse and the next contain the crux of the Biblical apologetical method, which has come to be known as the presuppositional method.
Van Til, thoroughly familiar with the writings of the ancient philosophers, believed God had allowed philosophical history to progress to such a state by Paul's time that it was evident that man's wisdom had proven itself incapable of giving an answer to the deepest issues of life (origins, personality, morality, intelligence, after-life). According to Paul, the Greek worldview was not simply uninformed or mistaken, but apostate, knowingly rebellious, actively obfuscating the Truth. The Greeks had so worked out their philosophy and epistemology that with skill and precision they would suppress the truth in unrighteousness, while they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen (Rom. 1:25).
A Head-on Collision
Van Til observed that Paul did not come to the Greeks and place the gospel alongside their other Greek epistemological options in order to ask them to reason and consider if they might please kindly take the gospel as their worldview, or at least examine it in light of their accumulated wisdom as to whether it was worthy of being incorporated into their worldview. Rather, says Van Til, Paul proclaimed, he preached, he set forth the reality revealed by the only One capable of knowing reality (i.e., knowing on His own and knowing fully), the only Living God. Paul's gospel, says Van Til, was preached fully with all its implications, including creation, the Fall, sin, redemption, and eternity. Van Til said the only way to meet the philosophy of unbelief is in head-on collision.
Van Til taught that the ancient Greeks were not as modern textbooks portray them innocent and child-like in their search for truth and reality; helplessly blind, chained by the neck in a dark cave (as in Plato), groping for light, longing and searching for truth. Rather they were those who intentionally put out their own eyes; they were culpable, guilty in the first degree of knowing clearly the truth of God and exchanging it for a lie, being darkened in their understanding because of the hardness of their heart (Eph. 4:18). Van Til said, Psychologically there are no atheistic men; epistemologically every sinner is atheistic.1 The presuppositional apologetic takes this fully into account when presenting the gospel to the unbeliever.
Second, the presuppositional approach denies the natural man's claim to the right to predicate (i.e., to begin with and from himself to determine for himself the standard of truth and reality). The presuppositional approach acknowledges the Biblical position that man has neither the ability nor the right to predicate. Any statement of ultimate reality must come from an ultimate authority. The natural man claims to be able to draw ultimate conclusions about reality from his observation, reason, logic, and intuition, and thus claims for himself ultimate authority. The presuppositional approach insists the Creator is the ultimate authority from which definitive statements about reality must be received; such knowledge of reality comes by revelation given in Christ and the Scriptures.
So the presuppositional approach finds two fundamental errors at the crux of the natural man's unbelief: He willingly rejects the truth and claims not to believe in God whom he in fact knows; and he insists he has the right to decide for himself what reality and truth are, the right to be like God.
Here then is the essential difference between the presuppositional and evidential approaches to apologetics. The evidential approach essentially agrees with the natural man in the two fundamental errors that the presuppositional approach targets. The evidential approach assumes that the natural man needs and has a right to more evidence; and that once the natural man receives the new evidence, he has the right to decide for himself whether the evidence is worthy of inclusion in his view of reality. Van Til's presuppositional approach does not allow the sinner to maintain either his claim to a lack of sufficient evidence, or his right to predicate. The presuppositional approach maintains that man's ignorance is willful and culpable and that man's autonomous epistemological position is nothing less than rebellion against God his Creator whom he in fact knows to be the Creator, also knowing himself to be His creature, and utterly dependent on Him. The evidential approach does not challenge these fundamental issues.
In reality the evidential approach agrees with the natural man, for when the unbeliever says, I need more evidence to believe, the evidentialist says, Here is more proof! The presuppositionalist, on the other hand, will draw the unbeliever's attention to the fact that he already has overwhelming evidence which he continues to reject and close his eyes to, and that, so long as he rejects Christ (to whom all the facts witness) he is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. As the natural man steadfastly maintains that he does not yet have sufficient evidence to believe in an unseen God, the evidentialist seeks to provide more and more, while the presuppositionalist insists that he is already rejecting overwhelming evidence for which he is in fact now culpable and for which he will be judged. Van Til claimed that by not challenging the fundamental issues, the evidentialist essentially moves off of the solid epistemological ground of the gospel (i.e., Biblical reasoning) to reason with the natural man from his false epistemological position (beginning with a false premise can never rationally lead to discovery of the truth). In doing this, the evidentialist essentially (at least temporarily) forfeits his Christian worldview.
Are presuppositionalists opposed to evidence? Not at all. Evidence is useful both for the edification of the saint, and for the conviction of unbelievers. However, when it comes to challenging the unbelief of the natural man, the real issue is moral rather than evidential. Van Til would often admonish his listeners in words like these: You must be gracious when you are talking to the unbeliever; you must always pay for the extra cup of coffee! But before you leave him, you must bring to his attention the real issues.
For Further Study
As Van Til himself often referred, a careful reading of Romans 1 and 2 is indispensable for understanding Christian apologetics. He also often told his students, If you have not read Calvin's Institutes , at least read the first two pages (I think he probably meant the short first three chapters). In those pages Calvin mentions Cicero, whom he calls the eminent pagan, and quotes Cicero 's own words, Where is there to be found a race or tribe of men which does not hold without instruction, some preconception of the gods? In these beginning pages of the Institutes , Calvin demonstrates from the Scriptures and from common knowledge that Men of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity which can never be effaced is engraved upon men's minds.2 Two other books are of great benefit in further understanding Van Til's apologetic, in this order: 1) Defense of the Faith , by Van Til; 2) Van Til's Apologetic Readings and Analysis, by Greg Bahnsen. Recorded class sessions and sermons by Van Til are available.
1. Greg Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 191, citing Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1947), 53-44, 88-89.
2. John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries , (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 2003), 45.