Evidentialism v. Presuppositionalism

I have noticed a worrying trend among some Christians. It is the turn away from evidentialist apologetics toward presuppositionalist apologetics.

Evidentialism holds that belief should rest on evidence.

Presuppositionalism holds that belief rests on presuppositions.

Evidentialist apologetics attempts to bring converts by revealing the evidence behind Christianity. Evidentialists say that scientific evidence actually supports Young Earth Creationism, that archeology has proven the truth of the Bible, both new testament and old, and that the evidence for Christ’s historic existence is overwhelming.

Presuppositionalist apologetics attempts to bring coverts by arguing that the only rational, coherent worldview is that which begins by presupposing the divinity of the Bible, the existence of God, and the reality of Christ’s sacrifice. In other words, presuppositionalists say that one must presuppose Christianity, and that trying to convince someone based on evidence is flawed.

Evidentialist apologetics is traditionally associated with evangelicalism and fundamentalism while presuppositionalist apologetics is associated with more reformed traditions. This actually makes a lot of sense given that arminianism emphasizes free will while calvinism emphasizes predestination. It also makes sense given that Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer, both reformed, are the major luminaries who developed presuppositionalist apologetics. More and more these days this approach is spreading beyond reformed circles and into evangelicalism and fundamentalism in general.

I was raised on evidentialist apologetics (not surprising given that my parents were strong arminians). My parents were fond of telling the story of Josh McDowell, who started out as an atheist attempting to disprove the truth of Christianity and ended up concluding, based on evidence, that Christianity was actually true. I was taught to follow the evidence, and assured that evidence led directly to Christ.

Having been raised on evidentialist apologetics, when I arrived at college and found new evidence I had never heard of as a child, I didn’t simply reject that evidence. Instead, I researched and read and studied and reevaluated my beliefs based on new evidence. I found, for example, that the evidence does not actually indicate that Young Earth Creationism took place (quite the opposite), that archeology has actually contradicted the Bible in many places, and that the Bible actually does contain historical errors and contradictions. This process of reevaluation started a long spiritual journey, and even today I continue to strive to follow evidence, and I work to make sure I take into account any new evidence I encounter.

The goal of evidentialist apologetics is to convince others of the truth of Christianity by using evidence. It assumes that anyone who honestly looks at the facts will arrive at the truth of Christianity, and that the facts support the truth of Christianity. In the last few years, my parents have been moving toward presuppositionalism. This makes sense, given that the evidentialist approach actually led me away from their beliefs and that Vision Forum is actually openly and proudly presuppositionalist.

Presuppositionalism argues that the evidence we experience in the world is simply facts and pieces of data that must be interpreted through an interpretive framework, or worldview, and that the only way to consistently interpret these facts is through the Christian worldview. In other words, a person looking at facts and evidence will not necessarily be led to Christ; rather, one must start by assuming the truth of the Bible in order to find Christ. You can see the influence of calvinism here. Presuppositionalist apologetics, then, focuses on pointing out inconsistencies of other worldviews and arguing that Christianity is the only coherent worldview, the only way to explain the existence of reason and logic. In fact, presuppositionalism literally goes so far as to argue that evidence-based apologetics – as opposed to apologetics based on contrasting worldviews – is contra-Biblical.

Presuppositionalists don’t deal with evidence, because they argue that evidence and facts are neutral and can be used to support any worldview, because they are interpreted through that worldview’s lens. In other words, if someone presupposes a world without God, that’s what they’ll see; if someone presupposes a Christian world, that’s what they’ll see; if someone presupposes a Muslim world, that’s what they’ll see; etc. That is why presuppositionalists spend their time not on the evidence but rather on trying to show that their worldview is only rational, coherent worldview in existence, and that every other worldview is internally contradictory. Evidence doesn’t matter; what one chooses to believe is what matters.

The problem with these people is that you can’t argue with them. They’re going to believe it because they believe it, and nothing else matters. As an example, Answers in Genesis, a Young Earth Creationist group that runs the Creationist Museum in Kentucky and has recently embraced presuppositional apologetics wholeheartedly, is actually completely open about the fact that it simply rejects evidence that contradicts their interpretation of the Biblical account of creation. It’s not about the evidence. It’s about the presupposition. And no matter what you say, you’re not going to change their minds.

Problems with presuppositionalism include:

  • The logic is circular: you prove something is true by assuming it is true.
  • Presuppositionalism could be used to “prove” any religion, or even atheism.
  • Just because a worldview is coherent doesn’t mean it’s true.
  • There are many things about the Christian worldview that are arguably not coherent.
  • There are other worldviews that also explain the existence of reason and logic.
  • You can’t actually know something is true if you simply discount evidence entirely.
  • Finding truth involves not making presuppositions, but trying to rid yourself of them.

Presuppositionalism holds that everyone starts out with assumptions, and that starting by assuming the Bible is therefore no different than what anyone else is doing. Actually, most people start out with fairly simply assumptions. I, as an example, start out by assuming that I can trust my senses and that the world around me is something I can seek to understand. Lest a presuppositionalist argue that these are atheist or materialist assumptions, I would point out that essentially everyone starts out with these assumptions. In fact, I have never met a Christian who didn’t start out with these same assumptions. Assuming that we can trust our senses and learn about the world around us is completely different from assuming the truth and divinity of the Bible or the existence of God.

I have a friend who is a presuppositionalist. I recently asked her what she would do if archaeology directly contradicted a literal reading the Old Testament (it does). She told me that it would not change anything, because she would simply assume that future archaeological finds would clear up the contradiction and line up with the Old Testament. In other words, actual evidence in the here and now does not matter, not one whit. All that matters is her assumption that the Bible is true.

But I have to ask: If you simply assume your beliefs are true and throw out any use of evidence at all, if there is no possible evidence or experience that could disprove your beliefs, how in the world can you actually know they’re true? It would be like me saying that there is an invisible pink unicorn that lives in my room. You can’t touch it or hear it or detect it with any sort of test. You’re not ever going to come to the unicorn’s existence through evidence, and you shouldn’t try to. Rather, you simply have to assume it’s there. But then, if there is no evidence for it and it can’t be disproven, how in the world do I know it’s there in the first place? I don’t: I just assume it. Wha?

Interestingly, this emphasis on maintaining a persuppositional worldview is is why Vision Forum and others like it see secular colleges and secular sources of knowledge as dangerous. For them, facts and evidence are not neutral, but are interpreted through an assumed worldview. Therefore, a Christian should never study under a non-Christian, because what he will be learning falsehoods, not truth. One can only learn truth by studying under other likeminded Christians. The insularity this produces is overwhelming.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10571491063080250813 EveRebelsAgain

    Thank you so much for this article and this blog–I have so appreciated your writings because you capture exactly what I know to be true (based on evidence :)) although I don't yet have the objectivity to formulate the arguments. I was raised in a presuppositional environment and I finally understand why it's been so frustrating to have a coherent conversation about religion with my family.

  • http://www.misterwoodles.com Neal

    In Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things", he has an extra chapter called "Why Smart People Believe Weird Things"… he sums it up "Smart people believe weird things because they're good at rationalizing beliefs they came to for non-smart reasons."My personal opinion, having been in the position, is that a lot of supposedly "Evidentialist" Christians are actually only using evidentialism to try and justify the Christian beliefs they came to for Presuppositionalist reasons.I also base this on debates with my parents, in which they have always fallen back on "well you have to have faith", despite supposedly having so much evidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17500128753102750833 Mommy McD

    Neal sums it up exactly!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11665213464269297006 Sara

    Interesting anecdote: even van Til acknowledged the subjectivity of his thought system when he wrote that he ultimately believed in God because he heard God's voice, in reference to Jesus' words, "My sheep hear my voice…". So after all the effort trying to cancel out competing worldviews one by one through logic… Perhaps he was a closet postmodern after all. Personally, I favor critical realism as the epistemology that makes most sense because it does justice to both the subjective nature of the interpretive process that deconstructionism reveals, yet does not deny the existence of objective reality and the ability to know it somewhat as layers of criteria are applied and continue to evolve.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14856500260839151492 Gina B

    Thanks for this. I think it's why I, coming from a reformed tradition, became interested in Catholicism after the Reformed system ceased to make sense. A lot of Catholic apologists are saying that you need a framework, a presuppositional system, through which to understand scripture and tradition, and because their framework is based on an infallible charism granted to the see of Peter, you can know it's reliable. Unfortunately, lots of evidence to the contrary, like popes teaching something that was later condemned as heresy, is reinterpreted to fit the framework (he wasn't really speaking ex cathedra, so it doesn't count, or he wasn't condemned for heresy per se, etc). We all have presuppositions to some extent, but pitting presuppositions against evidence seems troublesome for any system of thought, be it a naturalist who thinks things simply *can't* be supernatural (Hume), or Descartes who thinks we must rely on our ability to think to know anything for certain rather than relying on sense experience. Perhaps the best system of thought is on in which presuppositions and evidence work hand in hand to arrive at truth. Basing everything on evidence solely might be troublesome because there are lots of philosophical ideas that aren't based on any empirical data, simply on reason, logic and thought. So we need presuppositions, but holding up over against evidence seems…counter-intuitive.

  • http://www.thedrantherlair.com quietpanther

    YAY Invisible Pink Unicorn reference!In the YEC camp, I think it's more than just AIG that has the presuppositionalist problem…. Just about any young-earth advocacy book or website will state repeatedly and categorically that everyone has the same facts, but interprets them differently. (And then, of course, they show off the facts that YEC has and Evil-lutionists don't want you to know about, even though those "facts" are hoaxes or misunderstandings that were cleared up decades ago … because YEC-ers can't admit that their entire system hinges on believing hoaxes and misinterpretations….)/end rant

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10374620768794536239 Sheena

    Interesting thoughts, Libby. :)I have recently realized that it makes more logical sense to look at every belief and figure out where it comes from and why it appeals to/bothers me. That's part of the reason that a lot of the beliefs held by fundamentalists, such as the inerrancy of the Bible, don't make sense to me. Like the napkin illustration you've included…If the basis for your belief in the accuracy of a text is that the text tells you it's accurate, there's a problem. I don't believe that the Bible is 100% accurate because there are portions in the Bible that claim 100% accuracy. I think there's still some value (as a literary work, definitely, but also in the sense that any devotional can inspire thought and reflection), but I'm not convinced in the so-called perfection. Kind of like when you're a child, you think your parents are the smartest and best people in the world, but as an adult you see that they are imperfect humans.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11665213464269297006 Sara

    Also, here are some thoughts on Schaeffer's "Biblical Worldview" and the dangers of the religious right http://pollidoo.blogspot.com/2011/09/biblical-worldview.html

  • Anonymous

    You have expressed my thoughts very well. As a teenager, I was strongly influenced by the books of Josh McDowell. I am a Christian because I believe there is not 100% proof but a preponderance of evidence that the Resurrection is true. I do not believe in the Resurrection just because the Bible tells me so.In order to be a Christian, why do I have to suspend my reason and believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old when I know that the evidence for an older earth is overwhelming? I am a PhD candidate in the physical sciences and I am a Christian. I have no presuppositions except the desire to make accurate observations about the world.

  • Chris

    Fascinating… PoMo apologetics!

  • Chris

    Anonymous, I'm very curious what non-biblical evidence can exist that verifies the resurrection

  • Anonymous

    Chris asked what historical evidence exists to verify the resurrection. That is a question very much worth asking. Because it has been so long since I have studied this issue (35 years), I will refer Chris to a book by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Amazon.com now sells an updated version.When I did read this book, I found it very compelling. I liked the book because I am a physical scientist who perfers to deal with facts and dislikes abstract concepts like a "personal relationship with God." When I read material by creationists such as Ken Ham, I become very angry because his material is not factual.I also believe in God because the world is too well-made to have arisen through chance. This is admittedly not a testable hypotheis, which I state upfront when I discuss creationism with my professors. In case you are wondering, my professors know I am a creationist (old earth creationist) and they still accepted me into the PhD program. I am about a year from graduating.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04196172455018273851 RazorsKiss
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18265169752471265510 Daniel

    Chris:For the sake of balance, if you check out McDowell's book, you might want to read this series of essays/articles critiquing the book. Most of the authors are former Christians, interestingly enough, and a couple are historians or scholars of the New Testament.http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/You might also be interested in Libby Anne's entry regarding the resurrection on this very blog:http://lovejoyfeminism.blogspot.com/2011/07/explaining-resurrection.htmlAnd, if you have the time, you might want to check out the book Doubting Jesus' Resurrection, by Kris Komarnitsky, which provides a thorough analysis of the evidence in regards to the resurrection. Or, you might try The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith, an examination of the evidence by a Christian New Testament scholar who takes a far more cautious stance on just how historically supported the resurrection is. When I was a Christian, I used the "evidence" provided by apologists like McDowell to bolster my belief. Yet, I found that a closer look at the facts reveals quite a different picture.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Anonymous and Chris: I actually wrote a whole post, Explaining the Resurrection, on the purported evidence for the Resurrection, and why it is not the compelling evidence I was taught as a child. You're free to believe as you like about it, but I was taught as a child that the Resurrection was compelling evidence for the truth of Christianity, and I have come to see it as anything but. Food for thought if nothing else. Regardless, Anon, I appreciate this statement of yours: "I have no presuppositions except the desire to make accurate observations about the world." That's the way I feel too. :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Also, one more note on what Anonymous said. Professors in physical science programs generally don't have a problem with "old earth creationists," otherwise called "theistic evolution," and indeed, every scientist who is religious (and plenty are) is essentially a theistic evolutionist of some sort. The difference is that Christians who believe that God used evolution to create the world generally do good science, and don't throw facts out if they don't like them, whereas Christians who are Young Earth Creationists do very bad science and play fast and loose with the actual evidence. In effect, professors and scientists generally don't care what someone's religious beliefs are, or about any lack thereof, it's whether they do good science that they care about.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12284971176688746388 Andrew G.

    Professors in physical science programs generally don't have a problem with "old earth creationists," otherwise called "theistic evolution,"Not quite – there's a difference between OECs and theistic evolutionists.OECs are represented by the likes of Ross and the "Reasons to Believe" group; if you read their stuff, they are just as critical of the theistic evolutionists as they are of the YECs. These people accept physical science as regards the age of the universe and the earth, but deny (or misrepresent) many other scientific findings relating to evolution or origins of life.Then there's the "intelligent design" crowd (Dembski, Behe et.al.) who share a lot of the OEC position but try and position themselves closer to the mainstream (as a deliberate strategy). They also criticize the theistic evolutionists.The theistic evolution position is represented by the likes of Biologos and Francis Collins (whereas Ken Miller rejects the term); this is probably the mainstream view among religious scientists and mainstream religion (i.e. non-YEC).There is some overlap between TE and ID, and much more between ID and OEC, but they're definitely parts of a spectrum rather than equivalent positions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "I also believe in God because the world is too well-made to have arisen through chance" ~ Anon 10:34I understand this sphere of thought, as I once believed the same thing for the same reason.But there's another way to look at this. Think of it as a "cosmic lotto". Consider that many people don't play the lotto, simply because of the extremely, extremely low chances of winning. However, these same people don't bat an eye when they hear about someone else winning the lotto. Why? Because they know that someone has to win.'Same thing applies in the "cosmic lotto". Some solar system has to "win", and we have. Food for thought.