Presuppositionalism is a fact of life. Everyone works from basic assumptions, or presuppositions. But not everyone is self-conscious of his or her presuppositions. The task of evangelism, therefore, carries with it the necessity to expose presuppositions in the light of God's Word and challenge hearers to adopt Biblical assumptions, not ones they make up themselves.
Presuppositionalism as we know it has been around for half a century or more. The initiating work of Cornelius Van Til and his later followers have exposed a large number of people to the idea of presuppositions and the way they should be used in evangelism. But it seems there is good evidence for us to re-evaluate the way we teach and use presuppositions in an evangelistic or lifestyle framework.
A recent study by the George Barna Research Group has highlighted the fact that spiritual maturity needs to begin at a young age. After three years of research, Barna has identified the following:
- An individual's moral foundations �are usually in place by the age of nine. While those foundations are refined and the application of those foundations may shift to some extent as the individual ages, their fundamental perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality, and ethics are formed quite early in life.�
- An individual's �response to the meaning and personal value of Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection is usually determined before a person reaches eighteen. In fact, a majority of Americans make a lasting determination about the personal significance of Christ's death and resurrection by age 12.�
- Barna's research indicates that �in most cases people's spiritual beliefs are irrevocably formed when they are pre-teens.�1
It seems that by age thirteen, most people are set in their ways. What are the implications of this for teaching presuppositions?
To date, most books on presuppositionalism are aimed at the adult market. Now while there seems some reason to aim books on Christian apologetics at the adult market, it also seems necessary to provide a framework to teach young children about assumptions.
A lot of educational pedagogy stands in the way at this point. It is believed that children should not be taught difficult concepts. These are often saved for university days or later. Yet according to the Barna research, this is too late. However, in the 1970s, Chalcedon published an essay by Dorothy Sayers, �The Lost Tools of Learning� which opens the door to teaching presuppositions to pre-teen children.
Speaking on the medieval concept of education, Miss Sayers highlighted the three stages of learning that were used in the older methods of education. Using the concepts of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, Sayers explained how medieval education provided the tools of learning so that students could go on in life and educate themselves. They were given the tools of learning, so they could learn on their own.
In contrast, modern educrats teach the child what they think he should know. They teach vast quantities of information rather than give students critical thinking skills. The result? Modern students do not have the tools of learning so they find it difficult to carry on continuous learning.
More importantly for us here, however, is that Miss Sayers identifies the ability of the pre-teen child to learn quite complex information. In music, for example, we now understand why children could compose music at an early age in past eras. They were taught how to do it. They learned the grammar of music, just as they learned the grammar of language or mathematics. The result? Highly skilled musicians and composers by the time they were teenagers.
We should not be afraid, then, to use presuppositional arguments on young children to ground them in the Faith. While the way we teach may be different than it would be for adults, nevertheless the need is there to educate the young in these concepts.
Can young children understand philosophical argument? That is not the first question, according to the older view of education. The first step is to ground the student in the grammar of a particular subject. The second step, to be undertaken when the child reaches around the age of ten, is to add explanation (logic) to the information they have been taught. By the time the student is in his early teens, the rhetorical stage of education should begin: the ability of the student to defend the knowledge he has acquired.
It does not seem an insurmountable task, for example, to have young children learn the basics about the origins of life, for on our assumptions here hang the moral foundations that we adopt in life. The choice, as always, is between a created, personal universe, or an impersonal uncreated one. If the world is uncreated and impersonal, then morals are a dream and everyone can be his god determining for himself what is right or wrong.
Leaving off the Baggage
Underlying all this is a commitment to how we know that what we know is true. The impersonal universe leads only to a dead theory of knowledge, with no basis for knowing whether or not the information we have is true or false, right or wrong. In fact, these concepts tend to disappear in an impersonal universe. Or, as Paul puts it in Romans chapter one, the unbeliever suppresses the truth in his attempts to deny what he knows deep down to be true: that the God of the Bible created all things and really exists.
Without the baggage of a humanistic education, it is not difficult to teach these basic ideas to children, and there is an incentive to move down this path. Barna's research opens up a vision of children's ministry that may have been overlooked in the past. But in our Christian schools and homeschools, we have the opportunity to educate the young in the assumptions that will carry them through life. And it seems that if we don't do this by their early teenage years, it may be just a little too late.
1. �Research Shows That Spiritual Maturity Process Should Start at a Young Age�, available at www.barna.org.
- Ian Hodge
Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.