f you have ever wondered why Cornelius Van Til called Francis Schaeffer an “inconsistent presuppositionalist”—read on. If you don’t even know what a presuppositionalist is, let me explain.
Presuppositionalism is a methodology for doing Christian Apologetics, that is, for defending the faith. The presuppositionalist thinks it futile to present evidence to the unbeliever because how the unbeliever interprets and evaluates that evidence will be determined by his non-Christian world view. First you must at least put him in the position of questioning his assumptions (presuppositions). So rather than arguing for bits of the biblical world view serially (theism, messianic prophecy, the resurrection), the presuppositionalist argues for it as a whole. If God did create the world, then any other starting point will lead to contradictions, both internally and between that view and the world itself, and the biblical world view alone will make it possible to live without such contradictions. For example, unless there is a personal God to ground moral absolutes, all values are personal and subjective. But no one can or does live as if there are no moral absolutes. Even if they argue for the supposed absence of moral absolutes to justify their lifestyles, non-Christians actually hold to them at other places. No one is actually willing to live in a world where there is no moral justification for opposition to the Holocaust. The presuppositionalist will call people out on these inconsistencies to try to show them that accepting God is the only way for them to stop lying to themselves.
Cornelius Van Til
For the presuppositionalist, then, God is not the conclusion to our rational arguments; He is the only starting point that makes rational argument possible in the first place. This is a valid and important point. Doctrinaire presuppositionalists (e.g., Cornelius Van Till and his disciples) claim that theirs is the only proper and biblical approach to apologetics, because any other approach (arguing to God rather than from God) makes God subordinate to human reasoning. Others (e.g., Francis Schaeffer) use a basically presuppositionalist approach without such insistence. Van Til had a problem with Schaeffer’s doing so; he thought it made him inconsistent.
A very helpful article on the dispute between Van Til and Schaeffer is William Edgar, “Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer Compared,” Westminster Theological Journal 57:1 (Spring 1995): 57-80. You can read it online at http://www.chaleteagle.org/cybershelter/Study/95040A.html.
Edgar’s essay is very helpful. The bottom line seems to be Van Til’s contention that Schaeffer explores the truth of Christianity “together” with the unbeliever, which Van Til thinks means that he is subjecting the truth of God to the unbeliever’s ultimately unbiblical and irrational standards. If God is only God in so far as our fallen and rebellious reason assents to His deity, then He is less than God.
If Schaeffer were really doing that, we would have to agree with Van Til. But I think that it is possible to “explore together” without necessarily doing that. Schaeffer’s point of contact with the unbeliever was their common humanity. Schaeffer adopted a stance similar to that described by the cliche that a Christian is simply a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. How does this work practically in apologetics?
As a professor I often explore questions with my students as if we were looking together for the answer. In fact, I already know what it is, and I am prepared to steer the students away from any number of false methodologies, false rabbit trails, and false standards they may be inclined to try in our search. So why do I do it? Because it is a rhetorical stance that encourages them to participate in a quest that in fact I am going to guide, and which causes them to own the correct answer when they have found it in a way they would not if I just gave it to them. I think that is what Schaeffer was doing, and I think it is a good thing to do. So I agree with Edgar that Van Til over-reacted to Schaeffer’s language. Unlike Edgar, I think Schaeffer was the one who was right.
I think presuppositional apologetics gives us good and profound insights and that it has to be the background to any apologetic we offer because indeed people do not approach the evidence as neutral observers but as people whose thinking is influenced by their world view. But to those who argue that it is the only legitimate way to do apologetics we must answer that it is not necessarily so. It is possible to use God’s gift of reason because it is His gift, even if our conversation partner does not (yet) realize this.
To the presuppositionalists we must be grateful for some very useful and foundational insights. The superiority—nay, more, the necessity—of the biblical world view as the only adequate grounding for Reason is one more powerful argument in a cumulative-case presentation, and ultimately the one that makes the rest of the cumulative case posssible. And the strong influence (though not determinism) of world view and presuppositions on how we interpret and evaluate evidence is something the presuppositionalists can helpfully teach us to take into account. Should we do presuppositionalist apologetics? Absolutely. And we should do it the way Francis Schaeffer did.
See the chapter on Schaeffer in Dr. Williams’ book REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE: ESSAYS IN EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHY (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). Order ($15.00 plus shipping) from: http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/. And see also his latest book, DEEPER MAGIC: THE THEOLOGY BEHIND THE WRITINGS OF C. S. LEWIS (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016). Order from the publisher or from Amazon.