According to the presuppositional approach to apologetics, Christians should presuppose the truth of Christianity as the starting point for defending the Christian faith. In addition, the Bible must be the framework through which all experience is interpreted and truth is known.
For all of my Christian life I have identified with those who affirm presuppositional apologetics as the God-honoring way to defend the truths of Christianity. This was the perspective of the churches I was involved with, and it was the position of much of my theological training. Thus, in regard to apologetics, presuppositionalism has been my theological heritage.
Yet there was a time when I began to wonder whether presuppositionalism truly was the best approach to apologetics. As I read the works of impressive Christian authors who promoted classical and evidential apologetics, I began to have doubts about presuppositionalism. Perhaps I was being too naïve and simplistic in thinking that I could assume the truths of the Bible as my starting point for defending the faith against unbelievers. After all, was it really intellectually credible to assume what I was trying to prove? Wasn’t it circular reasoning to assume the Bible to prove the Bible? What about the impressive evidential arguments for Christianity—shouldn’t I start with these when dealing with the unbeliever?
While wrestling with these issues, I was also teaching in the humanities department of a secular college in Lincoln, Nebraska. As I dealt with atheists and people who held to other worldviews, I had to decide on a proper approach to explaining and defending the Christian worldview. Would I engage primarily in an intellectual battle as I marshaled various empirical and historical evidences to defend the Christian faith, or would I start with the Word of God?
I considered several sources in my research. First and foremost, I searched the Scriptures. I also read extensively the works of both presuppositionalists and those who promoted classical and evidential apologetics. Eventually, I came to the settled conviction that presuppositional apologetics was the most God-honoring and effective way to defend the faith. I became a convinced presuppositionalist and not just a presuppositionalist by heritage.
Certain factors loomed large in my becoming a convinced presuppositionalist. What I am about to say is not an exhaustive set of reasons for why presuppositionalism is best, for there are many other reasons that I do not mention. But these issues were especially relevant to me as I wrestled with the issue of apologetical method.
The Depravity of Man
One of the big issues in regard to apologetics is having a Biblical anthropology (doctrine of man) and hamartiology (doctrine of sin). Just what is the nature of this unbelieving man or woman? How has sin affected this person’s ability to understand God’s truth?
The Word of God is clear that the primary problem for unbelievers is moral and spiritual—not intellectual. The unbeliever is a truth suppressor (Rom. 1:18b) whose mind is totally darkened to the things of God (Eph. 4:18). Thus I asked myself, “What is the best approach for addressing unbelief?” Is it an appeal to the unbeliever’s reason? Do we lay out the case for God’s existence and the historical reasons for Christianity as the first line of argument, as classical and evidential apologists assert? Or should our defense of the faith begin with spiritual weapons that can pierce the heart—namely the Word of God and the Spirit of God?
I became convinced that starting with empirical and historical evidence in an appeal to the unbeliever’s intellect did not really address the heart of the problem. If the unbeliever’s main problem is moral and spiritual, shouldn’t my strategy as a Christian directly address the moral and spiritual problems of the unbeliever? Should I make an appeal to the unbeliever’s reason and offer him the opportunity to examine whether the evidences are truly on the side of Christianity?
I certainly believe that the empirical and historical evidences, when properly understood, support the Christian worldview. And I am not against using these evidences within a presuppositional framework. But I came to believe that the starting point for dealing with unbelief was the Word of God and the Spirit of God. I could not put God’s existence or the authority of the Bible on the laboratory table to be examined by an unbeliever who by nature is a truth suppressor with a darkened mind. The Bible does not grant the unbeliever such autonomy and neither should I.
As I examined the works of both presuppositional authors and those who espoused classical and evidential apologetics, I became convinced that the presuppositional approach takes most seriously the nature of man and sin. While I want to be careful against making blanket statements, it appeared to me that most of the works from a classical or evidential perspective simply jumped into “evidences” for the Christian faith without much discussion or thought concerning the nature of man and sin’s effect on man. In other words, I found most of these writings light on the Biblical doctrines of man and sin. On the other hand, presuppositionalists rightly gave due justice to the Biblical teaching on anthropology and hamartiology. This was an important factor in my decision.
Implications of the Image of God and the Created Order
The theological implications of the image of God and God’s creation were also important in my becoming a convinced presuppositionalist. As I thought through the issue of apologetics, I asked myself, “Is there any point of common ground that we who are Christians share with all unbelievers?” Is there something we can assume that all unbelievers know that we can use as the foundation for evangelism and apologetics?
The answer from Scripture is a resounding Yes! The answer is the image of God. Even after the Fall of Adam, all people possess the image of God (see Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). The implications for this are huge. The image of God in every person means that everyone already knows certain truths. Romans 1 indicates that every person already “knows God” (vs. 21) in some sense. Of course, unbelievers don’t know God as their Savior, but they do know that God exists. They also know that they are sinners and are accountable to God. Psalm 19:1–6 indicates that the creation shouts God’s existence to everyone, 24/7.
This truth has massive implications for apologetics. Classical apologists say that we must take a two-step approach with unbelievers. We must first use various evidences to convince the unbeliever of the existence of God and then use historical evidences to establish the truth of Christianity. But if all people are made in the image of God and intuitively know there is a Creator, and if the creation shouts out to the unbeliever that God exists, why should I allow the unbeliever to seriously question whether God exists or not? He already knows the God of the Bible exists.
Sure, in his rebellion he suppresses this truth in unrighteousness, but in the core of his being he already knows that God is there and that he is in rebellion against this God. God’s existence does not have to be put on the table for examination. As creatures in the image of God we all know this. The main issue for all of us is, “Will we submit ourselves to the God that we know is there?”
I believe that presuppositionalism most adequately addresses the concepts of the image of God and God’s testimony through the creation. This is a very liberating concept. As I flirted with classical and evidential apologetics, it concerned me that one would have to study a vast amount of science and philosophy to adequately encounter the unbeliever on an intellectual level. Must one have a Ph.D. in these areas to defend the faith? What about the Christian who doesn’t know a lot about the “evidences” for the Christian faith?
A proper understanding of presuppositionalism is encouraging for the average Christian. It helps him understand the great advantage he has. Instead of getting into an intellectual joust with the unbeliever, we can proclaim with authority what we and the unbeliever already know to be true—“The God of the Bible created you. You are in rebellion against Him. Repent. Lay down your warfare and trust in Him for salvation!” Thus the person who has been a Christian for only one day or the little old grandma with no formal theological training can face any unbeliever no matter how smart he is and say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved,” and do so with confidence.
I do have an appreciation for much of the work done by apologists who are not presuppositionalists. Since this is God’s world, I believe that all the historical and empirical data, when correctly understood, supports Christianity. I find my heart encouraged when I read how the findings of science and history line up with what God has already declared in His Word. Yet because of the nature of man, I cannot start with science and history. I must start with the testimony of the God who is there and His inspired and authoritative Word. I cannot grant the natural man autonomy to question God and use his reason to make conclusions against God.
There are many other aspects of presuppositional apologetics that I find helpful that go beyond the purpose of this testimony. But it was the Biblical understanding of total depravity, the image of God, and the created order that made the difference in regard to which apologetical method I chose to use. That is why I am now a convinced presuppositionalist.
- Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.
Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D., teaches Apologetics, Historical Theology, and Theology at the Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California.