Home > Ethics and Morality, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Theology > Presuppositional Apologetics Part I: Circular Argumentation

Presuppositional Apologetics Part I: Circular Argumentation

September 7, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

As promised, though much later than intended, this post represents Part I in a series concerning presuppositional apologetics as employed by Christian theologians. In this installment I shall focus on the claim made by John M. Frame in his book Apologetics to the Glory of God* that the basic reasoning behind the presuppositional approach is not a circular argument and is a valid argumentation form. By way of this treatment I shall also introduce why Frame and other such apologists believe this form of argumentation appears illogical to non-Christians.

What is ‘Apologetics’?  

According to Frame, one of the leading Calvinist theologians, apologetics of any type focuses primarily on one of three approaches: proof, defense, and offense, though any complete apologetics will include all three. In the first, the defender of faith attempts to offer proof in support of her position which might persuade the interlocutor to concede a key point or accept a theory on faith altogether. In the second, the defender of faith seeks merely to provide a reasoned account for why she is justified, through reason or faith, in holding a given position or belief. Finally, a defender of faith assuming an offensive approach attempts to actively discredit contrary evidence in order to strengthen the case for the given claim.[1]

Regardless of the approach, it is important to note that Frame views the purpose of apologetics as twofold; to at once offer a public recognition of Christ as the son of God and the Christian faith, as well as to offer “a reason for [Christian] hope.”[2] What I would like to discuss here is one of the prominent theories, especially among Presbyterian forms of Christianity, viz. ‘Presuppositional Apologetics.’ This form of apologetics has gained notoriety after the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson were published and also featured in the film Collision: Hitchens vs. Wilson.

Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositionalism might best be described as biting the apologetics bullet. In this form of apologetics, the defender attempts to ‘even the playing field’ by way of bypassing arguments stemming from literary/textual criticism, logical issues in theology, or questions of evidentiary or historical nature. This is accomplished in a two-fold manner. First, as the name entails, the apologist uses Scripture as the measure by which all evidences and arguments must be evaluated, even (and especially, it seems) at the cost of sound argumentation and cogent lines of reasoning. Frame, and by extension any presuppositionalist, claims that all philosophies presuppose the primacy of one element or another, be it reason or existential experience, etc. This is the second means by which presuppositional apologetics seeks to undercut common methods of rational discourse, i.e. by alleging that even a rationalist is presupposing some measure or another. This would not necessarily be problematic, except that it is assumed all presuppositions are inherently equal in their epistemological or evaluator weight:

“Every philosophy must use its own standards in proving its conclusions; otherwise, it is simply inconsistent. Those who believe that human reason is the ultimate authority (rationalists) must presuppose the authority of reason in their arguments for rationalism. Those who believe in the ultimacy of sense experience must presuppose it in arguing for their philosophy (empiricism)…The point is that when one is arguing for an ultimate criterion, whether Scripture, the Koran, human reason, sensation, or whatever, one must use criteria compatible with that conclusion. If that is circularity, then everybody is guilty of circularity.”[3]

Frame seeks to claim that any philosophical approach creates for itself standards by which it can then compare all considerations and premises. This form of apologetics seeks to argue that Christians are just as justified in claiming Scripture as the measure by which any claims may be justified and any premises evaluated. Before I explain why this is intellectual sleight of hand of the subtlest degree, it is worth examining the line of reasoning Frame utilizes to come to the conclusion that the Bible commands Christians to presuppose its truth (though even a few passing theological encounters should confirm for any philosopher that Christians rarely require an answer any more developed than a passage claiming to be the word of God.) I reproduce it here in its entirety in order to demonstrate the stretch that is required:

“’Lord’ in Scripture refers to the head of a covenant relationship. In that relationship, the Lord dictates to his covenant servants the way they are to live and promises them blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. He also tells them of the blessings that he has already given to them – his ‘unmerited favor,’ or grace , which is to motivate their obedience. Without words of grace, law, and promise, there is no lordship. To recognize the Lord is to believe and obey his words above the words of anyone else. And to obey the Lord’s words in that way is to accept them as one’s ultimate presuppositions.”[4]

So, believing the Scripture to command that it must be treated as the ultimate presupposition, Frame contends that Christians are just as justified (if not infinitely more so) in accepting Scripture as a presupposition as any other philosophical system is in setting its own criteria for evaluation. In one sense, Frame is correct. As Richard Taylor once wrote, we must always start somewhere, even if we are to later return and revise the foundation of our inquiry. And certainly the creation of any new philosophical approach entails a re-imagining or reworking of the way we traditionally consider the world and evaluate our data. Regardless, presupposing the truth of Scripture is far different from presupposing the primacy of an evaluative tool. This is because reason and empiricism, to use Frame’s examples, are methods of evaluation – we utilize the spirit of these methods to evaluate premises. For example, in a rationalist approach, if a conclusion does not follow from its premises then the argument is fallacious. If, in an empiricist approach, we cannot experience a phenomenon, it cannot be confirmed. Rationalism and Empiricism are methodologies, whereas Scripture is not; it is itself a set of premises. What Frame has done, in the contortioned passage quoted above, is stretch the premises of the Bible to resemble a sort of methodology rather than series of claims.

Furthermore, even if we do treat Scripture as a methodology, it is certainly not a properly basic one. To use the Law of Identity as an example, A = A can be seen to be properly basic in that the world and its contents would quite literally be meaningless if it were not true. Rationalism goes so far as to posit that this law must be true in all possible worlds – for who can imagine a world in which objects are not what they are? Presuppositionalism makes use of such logical laws but only after creating a barrier which they cannot transgress, and so such a presupposition depends upon other presuppositions to function. Conversely, it is quite easy to conceive of a world in which Scripture is not true, and, further, doing so does not result in logical contradictions or absurdities. Additionally, Frame also makes use of logical and reasoning to confirm Christianity or other arguments but only after he has presupposed the truth of Scripture, which again is a premise and not a methodology. So, in short, Frame is merely claiming the truth of a premise and ignoring its irrationality or circular argumentation. Defending against the claim that a world can be imagined in which God does not exist, Cornelius Van Til originated what is known as the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God.

Van Til and the Transcendental Argument: God as Ground

On the one hand, the defender attempts to demonstrate that the existence of God is logically necessary for an atheistic as well as theistic worldview. On the other, the defender builds upon the alleged logical necessity of God by claiming that any argument not stemming from divine revelation is therefore not a valid argument, since it attempts to argue against God by excluding Him from His own created system, i.e. the world, the Bible, natural law, etc. Cornelius Van Til calls this phenomenon “borrowed capital” since the non-believer is allegedly using the knowledge of causality or reason, given to her by God, to argue against the existence of God.[5] Now, prima facie this move may appear sound; for, if a defender can demonstrate that God is logically necessary for any rational worldview, then this opens the door to then argue for the validity of scripture.

However, a cursory examination of this approach shows these are two very different and ultimately unrelated claims, since philosophical arguments for the existence of God most often stem from the use of logic and rational reasoning, whereas any (non-circular) argument for or against the validity of scripture must necessarily address textual criticism concerns, logical problems, and evidentiary attacks. So, while it might be the case that God is logically necessary, this necessity offers no support for or against the truth of any scripture over and above that which confirms any qualities which must necessarily be attributed to God.

It is certainly worth noting that Frame does not accept Van Til’s Transcendental Argument because, while he agrees with the premise, the argument requires the use of additional arguments i.e. teleological, etc. to be sufficiently persuasive.[6] It is puzzling that Frame at once recognizes that Van Til is merely postulating the truth of a premise without an argument despite having done so himself. Skipping the reiterations by Frame that all human beings are born with a knowledge of God’s existence and that creation also serves to demonstrate God’s existence (for, undefended, these are baseless claims),  Frame does offer an explanation for why the circular reasoning of Presuppositional Apologetics lacks persuasive force for non-Christians.

Noetic Effects of Sin

Based on a theoretical concept popularized by Cornelius Van Til, the ‘noetic effect of sin’ is an attempt to explain or justify why non-Christians are unswayed by arguments based on Scripture and deny God’s existence. In short, the noetic effect of sin is a degradation or erosion of the cognitive powers of nonbelievers due to being born in sin or living in sin. By this account, reason, logic, and understanding all suffer in the non-believer, and the only hope of restoration lies in affirming Scripture and Jesus as Christ. Frame also subscribes to this theory. In one passage, Frame writes, “When sinners try to gain knowledge without the fear of the Lord, that knowledge is distorted (Rom. 1:21-25; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5). This is not to say that every sentence they utter is false. It is to say that their basic worldview is twisted and unreliable. Their most serious epistemological mistake is, typically, to assert their own autonomy: to make themselves, or something other than the biblical God, the final standard of truth and right. So rationalistic philosophy declares human reason to be the final standard.”[7]

And in yet another passage, Frame claims that the noetic effect of sin is so great that nonbelievers (those who suppress their knowledge of God’s existence) are, in fact, irrational: “One might note that this process of suppression is not rational, therefore nonbelievers do not fall under the definition of ‘rational persons’ in the proposed definition of proof. Then that definition is of no apologetic significance. For the whole point of apologetics is to present the truth to unbelievers. The question, then becomes: How should we present the truth to nonrational persons? What constitutes a proof in the apologetics situation?”[8] I will write that out again for disbelieving readers – Frame claims that it is irrational for rationalists to ‘presuppose’ rationality as the ultimate means of evaluation. As mentioned earlier, the contributing factors to this position are that of (1) the supremacy of the Scripture as a ground for all knowledge and (2) the inherent knowledge all human beings possesses regarding the existence and nature of the Judeo-Christian God.

A Circle’s a Circle, No Matter How Small

All of this notwithstanding, Frame seemingly admits that his argument is circular and attempts to mitigate this by differentiating between narrowly and broadly circular arguments. A narrowly circular argument is, to use Frame’s example, “The Bible is the Word of God because it is the Word of God.” Frame goes on to say regarding this argument that, “There is a profound truth vividly displayed in this narrow argument, namely that there is no higher authority than Scripture by which Scripture may be judged.”[9] So, Frame believes such arguments are valid because they speak to a truth about the world (despite being invalid tautologies).

Recognizing that such arguments hold almost zero persuasive force outside of the isolated Christian community, Frame suggests utilizing a more broadly (but still) circular argument: “We may overcome those disadvantages to some extent by moving to a broader circular argument. That broader circular argument says, ‘The Bible is the Word of God because of various evidences,’ and then it specifies those evidences. Now the argument is still circular in a sense, because the apologist chooses, evaluates, and formulates these evidences in ways controlled by Scripture.”[10] And so there we have it.

While Frame and other presuppositional apologists are correct in pointing out that any philosophical system must necessarily utilize some methodology as a means of evaluation, they are grossly mistaken in believing that Scripture stands on equal footing with rationalism et al as a viable and valid methodology. For, upon even a cursory examination, it can be seen that Scripture is nothing more than an aggregation of premises that demand to precede logic, but then attempt to utilize its very laws after the fact. In this way, I agree with Frame that his argumentation is both narrowly and broadly circular, but I believe it is far more questionable as to whether such assertions hold up against more rigorous and basic philosophical methodologies the way he claims.

*In a weak but well-meaning attempt to stymie the flow of potential plagiarizers, I have opted not to include full bibliographical citation in this post. If you would like this information, please feel free to e-mail me or request it in the comment section below and I will contact you.

[1] Frame, 1-3.
[2] Frame, 1-2
[3] Frame, 10.
[4] Frame 6 (footnote 10)
[5] Frame, 69-72.
[6] Frame, 71.
[7] Frame, 51.
[8] Frame, 63.
[9] Frame, 14.
[10] Frame, 14.
  1. September 8, 2011 at 6:43 AM

    Spot on. Glad you shared this one. I have been looking forward to it.

    • September 8, 2011 at 10:12 PM

      I am glad, Nick! Your and Aaron’s desire to read this post is what spurred me to slog through Frame’s otherwise tedious and more-than-occasionally infuriating book. At least I gave him due diligence!

  2. September 8, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    Another fantastic post.

    The noetic effect of sin seems more like a thought experiment than a positive argument. It’s good ole’ Descarte’s demon, playing tricks on our minds again. Of course, it begs the question, “Do God and/or ‘sin’ exist?” Then there’s the problem of interaction: “How does ‘sin’ affect the physical brain in the ways you say it does?” At any rate, science pretty much tells us that the exact *opposite* is occurring — we can point to neuroanatomical differences between the super-religious and the super-non-religioius. If anyone’s logical reasoning is skewed, it’s the super-religious. Of course, as you imply, a religious person would disagree on the standard of “logical reasoning,” as if that standard were up for debate.

    • September 8, 2011 at 10:23 PM

      Thank you, Chris!

      It may not read like it, but I was actually quite kind to Frame; some of the passages in his book are borderline offensive to non-Christians. Many echo the sentiment described above that non-believers are irrational and ought to be persuaded rather than reasoned with because we are ‘fools’ (to use Frame’s term, which he uses often).

      I see this as an attempt to bolster the spirit of apologists who face a losing battle. On the one hand, to feel they are on even ground they must utilize argumentative or apologetic tactics like Presuppositionalism. Doug Wilson, from Collision, is actually quite good at this, though it is ultimately the same argument. On the other hand, to attempt to meet atheistic arguments head-on and on secular footing is (1) disingenuous, since they do not want to ever start from the assumption that God might not exist, and (2) devastating, since there are few, if any, decent, persuasive arguments for defending faith or encouraging it. Established avenues of modern thought like neuroscience and evolutionary science are just too well-reasoned and too accurate for Christians to address without presupposing the truth of their own belief. What’s more, such a position can be adopted by any religious person, or anyone for that matter, though it does work particularly well for arguments in favor of some scripture or revelation.

      In some ways it is quite clever to turn the argument, the way people like Frame and Wilson do, back against the interlocutor and ask meta-questions. Wilson discusses this in Collision, saying that all questions are totaling i.e. all questions must address the whole of everything and therefor the nonbeliever cannot escape answering the question of just why the Christian cannot presuppose the truth of Scripture the way he presupposed the primacy of reason. But, as I hope to have at least dimly outlined, this is also a misleading approach. For, if reason were some tome that contained arbitrary religious laws, alleged facts, and supernatural claims then surely Frame would be correct. However, reason so undergirds our worldview that he utilizes it himself to construct the argument for presuppositionalism. We cannot help but presuppose such simple truths like the Law of Identity because they are simply necessary – we cannot even hope to ever begin to understand anything without such laws. Scripture, clearly, is not this way. The Transcendental Argument attempts to claim this, but God is not a logically necessary being and so the whole argument falls apart. Such an approach also undermines presuppositionalism, because in attempting to define God as a logically necessary being, the apologist falls into the trap of viewing the world through the rationalist lens rather than the Christian lens. It is a rock and a hard place, a Catch 22.

      • September 13, 2011 at 3:24 PM


        I share in your exacerbation over presuppositional apologetics. The assertion that there are ‘different philosophies’ employed by, say, scientific naturalists, various types of theists, etc., is absurd beyond a superficial appeal. Insofar as Frame et al. fancy to present arguments for their philosophical theses, they presuppose various laws of logic, rules of evidence, etc.

        Consider a crude example. ‘The Bible is the Word of God’. ‘The Word of God is unquestionably true.’ ‘Therefore, the Bible is unquestionably true.’ This argument is valid and employs a standard hypothetical syllogism (though in this case the conditionals in premise 1 and 2 are suppressed).

        In the end, presuppositional apologetics is little more than base fideism and an elaborate special pleading (of course, EVERYONE else gets to play the presuppositional game, too). The best response to presuppositionals is really laughter.

      • September 14, 2011 at 7:14 PM

        You are quite right! As I may have mentioned above, the dangerous aspect of presuppositionalism is that it (1) closes MEANINGFUL communication between the believer and non-believer (this will be most of Part II), (2) reinforces dogma rather than rational and reasonable argumentation, and (3) reinforces the idea that one need not be able to form a rational argument in order to justify beliefs.

        It really would be a laughing matter if the U.S. political landscape were not so littered with candidates, senators, and representatives who would agree with Frame behind closed doors and see absolutely no problem with presupposing the truth of the Bible. Were we a society that truly valued rational thought filled with individuals who utilized reason to evaluate beliefs then presuppositionalism would be seen as more of a cult than Jonestown. Unfortunately, I imagine only the most liberal Christians would disagree with Frame’s assertion, even if those who agree would claim this form of apologetics is self-defeating.

  3. September 8, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    Jared: Dilligence indeed, although I am not sure it is due (to him). Personally, I think you gave him more time and effort than he has merited. Still, your kind of effort is exactly the thing that allows readers to notice important errors in certain people’s thinking.

    I actually gave up on another of Frame’s books, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”, because his introductory comments were too far removed from what I consider to be justified beliefs. In fact, it was exactly what you took the time to point out that had me quitting before I ever got started. I commend your patience and endurance. Reading and critiquing those with whom we have deep-seated disagreements is downright tough. I’d like to think I’ll get back to Frame’s book someday, but I would be unsurprised if I never make the time for it. I am glad you were more determined.

    • September 14, 2011 at 7:21 PM

      Frame references The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God frequently but I confess that after this little excercise I do not have the strength to wade through any more of Frame’s misaligned thinking.

      Speaking of unjustified beliefs, Frame actually says he does not believe that individuals must be capable of forming a rational argument with evidence in order to be justified in holding a certain belief. I can only imagine how a conversation between Frame and Sam Harris would go.

  4. September 10, 2011 at 2:58 PM

    Could God make an argument so circular that even He couldn’t believe it?

    • September 10, 2011 at 3:48 PM

      He did, and Frame published it.

  5. September 10, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    Doesn’t that imply that Frame’s book is “inspired”? 🙂

    • September 10, 2011 at 4:22 PM

      Oh, certainly! Though not on the level of Scripture, Frame’s book represents a non-heretical (according to Frame any non-presuppositional approach is heresy because it does not assert the primacy of the bible) defense of Christian beliefs, and is reasoned from a point of view devoid of the noetic effect on man’s capacity to reason. I doubt he would define his own work as inspired.

      • September 10, 2011 at 5:46 PM

        There’s the contradiction. Frame’s own argument for presupposing the existence of God relies on deductive methodologies. Because he asserts the primacy of the Bible over reason for settling epistemological disputes, I wonder how he can believe what he himself is writing since it didn’t come from the Bible?

      • September 14, 2011 at 7:03 PM

        The extended footnote I quote in the post (4th citation) is Frame’s Biblical justification. The book is littered with scriptural defenses of the presuppositional approach. He believes very strongly that Christians are justified in presupposing the truth of Scripture and that his form of apologetics is rooted in the Word of God. This is one of the defining aspects of his position and part of what makes presuppositionalism so intellectually frustrating and terrifying – these people genuinely believe they have a God-given mandate to believe x,y,z and to never question it.

        As you and Aaron point out, Frame utilizes logic to formulate and evaluate Biblical arguments – but logic takes a backseat to the Bible, and only after we have presupposed its unquestionable truth and authority can we reason correctly. All else, as Frame says, is foolish.

  6. September 14, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    …and to convince others of it (that part is particularly bothersome).

  7. September 14, 2011 at 7:23 PM


    One thing you and Frame might have in common is your views on free will. Your reasons would be different, but your conclusions would be similar.

  1. April 2, 2012 at 2:23 PM

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