January 16, 2018

Presuppositionalism – Is it more than a polysyllabic word?

Don Johnson

A number of years ago, I read a biography of Cornelius Van Til, a figure revered among those who count themselves “presuppositionalists.” I don’t think I’ve reviewed the volume, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, by John R. Meuther. The biography is well done and worthy of your attention. I mention it here because Van Til is closely associated with the term presuppositionalism. I must confess, though, that knowing of the term and understanding the term are two different things.

Meuther says, “The term presuppositionalism was probably coined … by Allan MacRae, Van Til’s antagonist on the early Westminster faculty, and it was intended as a term of derision.” (Meuther, 113). Interestingly, several different individuals with diverging views have used or been labeled by the term, thus making it somewhat ambiguous. It wasn’t a term that Van Til himself used very much, though he did talk about the necessity that the truth of Christianity be presupposed. It is from this usage that his critics developed the label and applied it to him and his work.

Having read the biography and with some little exposure to Van Til’s writings (and others), I have to say that I have still had some difficulty getting a clear working idea of what one is about in presuppositionalism. In light of this, I was glad to see Paul Henebury repost a short piece called “A Brief Summary of Presuppositional Apologetics.” Paul does a good job explaining (briefly) what presuppositionalism is all about for those who, like me, have trouble keeping it straight. (He also notes that the term presuppositionalism is perhaps not the best, but “we are stuck with the name” so it is probably a good idea to understand it.)

I thought this line by itself cleared up a good deal of the ambiguity one senses when confronted by the term:

In this approach a “presupposition” is not just a prior assumption which one brings to a problem. It is not, e.g., supposing that the Bible is God’s Word and seeing where that gets you. This only makes your presupposition a “hypothetical,” not a necessary stance. But a “presupposition” here means an “ultimate heart commitment” to some interpretation and explanation of reality.

This coincides with something Meuther reports Van Til saying in his book Defense of the Faith: “The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no proof of anything. Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof itself.” (Meuther, 113).

Paul Henebury’s article goes on, and I really recommend you read the whole thing. The idea of presuppositionalism is a wholehearted commitment to a Biblical worldview that indeed does explain man as he is and the world we live in as it is. The better we understand our faith, the better we will be able to communicate the gospel to those who are committed to destructive unbiblical worldviews.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


  1. I’m going to venture a first comment to a P&D post today. I just have some thoughts on why I remain uncomfortable with the “theological apologetic” approach as Henebury calls it, though I wish I could embrace it. In passing, I state that I don’t wish to couch the whole discussion in terms of whether one accepts the traditional Calvinist interpretation of total depravity.

    The essence of my objection is in the quotation you included. As I seek to use apologetics to lead one to come to faith, the matter of the believer’s “ultimate heart commitment” is of importance primarily to his own preparation. It is akin to how a preacher should cultivate conviction about the things he is proclaiming. As an apologetic method which I believe should intend to both glorify God and help the unbeliever, the heart commitment is not the main thing (though one can not effectively defend the faith without that commitment). One may summarize Henebury’s post with the common idea that presuppositionalism consists of a defensive approach, by tearing down how the opposing views can’t meet the criteria of truth. This has use, but I am more of the mind that positive demonstrations of the Christian worldview are needed. By this, I have in mind something like a demonstration of the truthfulness of the Bible and/or the reality of Christ’s resurrection. This is where there is an interrelationship of both faithful explanation of the truth rooted in the faith committment and convincing He concludes his discussion with no such hint of a defense. That is where I question the entire approach. It seems that a theistic god or even some other non-Christian god could be defended as having the same kind of qualities and explanations he and other like apologists claim are found only in Christian theism. I have yet to find a satisfying presuppositional explanation for why the defensive argument actually proves Christian theism and not theism in general. In conclusion, I am all for the Christian apologist beginning his enterprise from a full committment to the truth in the Christian scriptures to Christian theism, but as an apologetic method to be used in leading someone to believe as one does I am just not sure it tells the whole picture. While not denigrating reading Van Till or others (I should invest in reading more as you suggest!), it has been said that more recent apologists have more in common with each other than has been thought in the past. I think there is something to that, Thank you for your post!

    Jacob Reinhardt
    Facebook: @BiblicalWorldviewMusings
    Twitter: @BiblicalWVM

    • Thanks for your comment Jacob. I think I follow most of what you say!

      For me the value of Paul’s post was succinctly describing what presuppositionalism is. I think I generally appreciate it as a concept informing my own worldview rather than as an evangelistic tool. To me evangelism is the preaching of sin, righteousness and judgement. Apologetics comes after, as a way to understand what Christian faith is and the intellectual framework of faith.

      In any case I am glad to make your acquaintance online and will take a look at your blog.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

      • Thank you! I will just make one follow-up to you about the topic, I am not always clear in my mind whether to engage the unbeliever on the worldview level or on the gospel level. On the one hand, it is attractive to focus on the three-fold preaching as you say (what I call the gospel level). You seem to be alluding to what John 16 says the Spirit is already doing for all unbelievers, and thus it would make sense. However, when it comes to facing unsaved people in the current age, they often lack the preconditions for gospel preaching, In that light, I don’t tend to think of apologetics as something that I can’t entirely ignore with the unbeliever. I don’t want them to make a decision at the result of my preaching or tract that is not at some level intellectual. I would take the thought that the Spirit can (and does in normal course) use evidences to do the convicting work. He still has to do the convincing in view of the noetic effects of sin, however those effects are understood. This is where the relationship of presuppositionalism to certain understanding of total depravity and how people are converted comes into play. Anyway, thank you.

        • Thanks Jacob, I think we are in agreement in general. Thanks for your contribution.

          Don Johnson
          Jer 33.3

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