The kind of apologetics that challenges the objections raised against the Christian faith is often called presuppositionalism (although some prefer other names, such as the transcendental approach or covenantal apologetics). Rather than accepting the unbeliever’s challenge immediately, this approach first tests the challenge to see if it is a legitimate challenge. The Christian faith can satisfy any legitimate challenge posed against it, such as the test of historicity, the demands of logic, or the law of non-contradiction. Believers often find themselves frustrated when trying to give an answer, however, because they don’t recognize the challenge posed by the unbeliever as illegitimate.
For example, an unbeliever might pose a challenge concerning the reliability of the gospels that looks like this:
Unbeliever: How can you trust the Gospel accounts of Jesus when they were written by people who believed in him and were trying to advance his cause? That is not unbiased history; it is ideology. And besides, they were written decades after Jesus died. We know our memories are faulty, stories get exaggerated over time, and details are forgotten. You have to admit that the truth about Jesus is not really known any more, and cannot be known.
Believer: It wasn’t biased history and they didn’t forget what they saw. I believe it anyways.
In this example, the Christian has to concede a number of points. The Gospels were written to advance the cause of Jesus. They were written decades after Jesus died. Memories are faulty, stories do get exaggerated over time, and details are forgotten. What can he say to these charges?
The presuppositional method of apologetics always challenges the challenger before it presents the evidence. That is, presuppositionalism plays defense by dismantling the unbeliever’s challenge before going on the offense by showing the evidence for the Christian faith. This is likened to pulling the rug out from under the opponent or disarming the unbeliever before the intellectual battle.
What would that look like? Something like this:
U: How can you trust the Gospel accounts of Jesus when they were written by people who believed in him and were trying to advance his cause? That is not unbiased history; it is ideology. And besides, they were written decades after Jesus died. We know our memories are faulty, stories get exaggerated over time, and details are forgotten. You have to admit that the truth about Jesus is not really known any more, and cannot be known.
B: You object to the Gospels because they were written by people who believed in Jesus. Let me ask you a question. Can a history of anyone be written if the author didn’t believe that the subject of his biography existed?
U: Well, no. I guess not. Then it would be fiction.
B: Exactly, and the Gospel writers were making actual claims that Jesus lived and did the things described in their writings. Further, just because they believed in Jesus does not mean that what they were writing was not true. If someone was to write a biography of your life, but refused to interview your parents, friends, siblings, and other people who know and love you, how accurate could that be?
U: It would be missing many key details, that’s for sure. But, on the other hand, my mother might embellish some details because she loves me.
B: Of course it could happen that your mother might embellish details, but my point is that there is no necessary conflict of interests in having people who loved and believed in Jesus writing historical accounts about him.
U: Okay, I grant that. But what about the time between Jesus’ life and the Gospel accounts. Twenty or thirty years after the events is a big gap. How do we know that half the stories in the Gospels aren’t legends?
B: Well, let’s compare ancient history. How long after events happened did biographers write about them in the ancient world?
U: Well, I don’t really know.
B: Actually, many ancient histories were written 100 or more years after the events. The Gospels are some of the ancient world’s fastest written histories. They are so close to the events chronologically that if they promoted any errors, the facts could have easily been checked by talking to eyewitnesses of the accounts, many of whom would have still been alive. Any embellishments, errors or legends could have been caught and refuted. And yet, there are no ancient documents that refute these events.
U: I didn’t know that.
B: So to answer your question, I believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus because they bear all the marks of reliable history, and they claim to tell the truth about the most important figure in history. Can I tell you about some of the things Jesus said that speak directly on your life?
As you read that imaginary dialogue, the power of presuppositionalism becomes clear. Rather than trying to answer the challenge directly and right away, the believer is able to take away from the unbeliever the elements of his challenge that are not legitimate (such as histories being inaccurate if written 20-30 years after the events). He is then able to show how any legitimate demand of history is easily met by the Christian faith.
This approach works with any challenge to Christianity, whether it is the problem of evil and suffering, the existence of Jesus, the moral commands of the Bible, etc. In the following posts, we will look at a number of other scenarios to help Christians see how this approach might look in various situations.