Presuppositional Apologetics has been critically acclaimed as the “only Biblical defense of the faith” by many who advocate for the method. Yet there is a critical inconsistency in the vast majority of those who champion Greg Bahnsen and Cornelius Van Til, especially when it comes to the text of Holy Scriptures. Bahnsen provides a starting point in his critically acclaimed book, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended.
“Faith is humble submission to the self-attesting Word of God. Faith accounts God truthful, faithful, and powerful on the basis of His own Word, not requiring to see demonstrable proof or evidence outside of God’s Word that could confirm it as trustworthy” (64).
Bahnsen proposes in his book that every system must give an account for it’s claim to intelligibility. The Christian, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit in salvation, has had his mind renewed and operates from the epistemological starting point that God has spoken in His Word. The Christian system provides all of the meaningful conditions for logic, induction, and absolute morality. If a system cannot provide a foundation for such intelligibility, then all claims that follow must be operating from another system that does provide those conditions for intelligibility. They must borrow from the Christian worldview. The goal of the apologist is to first present Biblical truth, and then step into the opposing system and perform an internal critique, demonstrating the foolishness of the opposing system. If the presuppositionalist first begins by assuming neutrality, which is to admit the other system does provide the preconditions for intelligibility outside of the Christian worldview, then they are violating the principles laid out in 1 Peter 3:15 and have lost the argument.
Step 1: Answer Not a Fool According to His Folly
In order for this system to work, one must first presuppose that God exists (natural truth), and that He has spoken (revealed truth). In these last days, He has spoken through Jesus Christ in His Holy Scriptures (Heb. 1:1). Therefore, all meaningful presuppositional defenses of the Christian faith must begin with this premise. This presupposition is that the Holy Scriptures are the ultimate standard that all other standards must be evaluated by, because this standard is the only standard that provides the aforementioned preconditions for intelligibility. That means that the only standard that is capable of examining the standard set forth in the Holy Scriptures are the Scriptures themselves. If at any point an external standard is applied to this ultimate standard, then the Scriptures are no longer the ultimate standard. That is why the standard is presupposed, hence the name, presuppositional apologetics.
Based on this starting point, any attempt to defend the Holy Scriptures outside of the Scriptures themselves is to immediately surrender the argument, and adopt the folly of the fool.
Step 2: Answer a Fool According to His Folly
A modern trend in the practice of presuppositional apologetics is to defend the Scriptures evidentially. Evidence certainly has its place, as Van Til put forth, but not when it comes to evaluating an ultimate standard. The ultimate standard is presuppositional. Therefore, any attempts to “prove” the ultimate standard sets another standard above the ultimate standard, and the “ultimate standard” is no longer ultimate. In other words, the person has given up their claim to the preconditions of intelligibility, and they themselves have become the fool. A great example of this is to examine a situation wherein an atheist attacks the credibility of the ultimate standard by calling into question the ending of the Gospel of Mark. The presuppositionalist has two options here.
The first option is to say, “Well our earliest and best manuscripts do not contain that passage, so it is not a part of the Scriptures. It is not part of the ultimate standard I am appealing to.” At that point the opponent should ask, “By what standard are you defining the parameters of your ultimate standard?” The presuppositionalist responds, “There are thousands of manuscripts that testify to the New Testament, it is the best testified document from antiquity. Our earliest and best manuscripts date back to the third and fourth century AD, and they do not have the ending of Mark. There is no other book in the history of the world that gets that close to the authorship event.” The opponent continues, “So it is the ultimate standard because it is the best testified document in antiquity?” The Presuppositionalist, realizing his error, responds, “No, it is the ultimate standard because it is God’s Word”. The opponent, noticing that he has won the exchange, presses harder. “So what standard do you use to determine the parameters of the Bible?” The presuppositionalist has lost his right to claim that he can account for the preconditions of intelligibility, because in order to respond, he must apply an external standard upon the standard he has set forth as ultimate. He has stepped off of his proposed system and borrowed the canons of some other worldview.
The second option is to say, “By what standard are you calling into question the validity of the ending of Mark?” This answer is consistent with presuppositionalism, the first is not. By answering in this way, the presuppositionalist continues to point out that in order to call into question the authority of the Scriptures, one must assume the truths of Scripture in the first place. The opponent may not see this as a valid response, but the presuppositionalist has remained consistent.
There is an interesting phenomenon within the people who adopt a presuppositional apologetic. On one hand, they claim that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority, and on the other, apply external standards to that ultimate authority. If the Scripture truly is the ultimate authority, it must be, well, ultimate. It is one thing to do this in an apologetic scenario – occasionally somebody outmaneuvers a Christian in debate. That has happened to anybody who has engaged in a difficult conversation with a learned atheist. It is an entirely different thing to claim that the Bible is the ultimate standard, and then adopt an entire system which says the Bible must be validated by way of the standards set forth by that other system. That is to say, that the Bible is not the ultimate standard because it is the Word of God, it is the ultimate standard because an individual thinks it is based on the work of that other system. The standard shifts from objective to subjective, and at that point it’s simply a matter of personal preference if one wants to consider the Bible to be the Word of God.
This forces one to admit that the Bible is not ontologically the ultimate standard, it becomes the ultimate standard when shaped by the canons of some other system. So it does not follow that the presuppositionalists have any sort of meaningful, consistent claim to the preconditions of intelligibility if they adopt the ultimate standard of some other system, like modern textual scholarship. They must borrow from the worldview that says that the Bible is self-authenticating. In order to make such a claim that Mark 16:9-20 is not Scripture, one must apply some external principle to determine that. I wonder, does that standard meet the preconditions for intelligibility?