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Presuppositional Apologetics: Reformed vs. Catholic Approaches

Updated: Feb 13

From the "A Catholic on the Areopagus" blog

The cultural moment we now find ourselves in demands, possibly more than any other time in history, a potent and spirited renewal of apologetics in the Catholic ChurchMatthew Nelson

Apologists may soon find themselves in a situation where much of the culture lacks even the bare minimum of common ground necessary for rational engagementEdward Feser

Apologetics already acknowledges the truth of revelation, for one only defends what one thinks is certainFr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange

For how does one know that the thoughts that come to us in dreams are any more false than the others, given that they are often no less vivid and explicit? And even if the best minds study this as much as they please, I do not believe they can give any reason sufficient to remove this doubt, unless they presuppose the existence of GodRené Descartes

The only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn't prove anythingCornelius Van Til

Presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theismWilliam Lane Craig


We should always be looking, for the sake of effective evangelization, to improve upon our apologetic methods. We should be willing to adopt new strategies (or perhaps resurrect old and neglected ones) for the sake of making a defense to anyone who calls us to account for the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). We should say in accord with St. Paul, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). These ideas are captured in what has been referred to as the "New Apologetics," which Catholic apologist Matthew Nelson describes as follows:

[H]ere is what the New Apologetics is not. It is not a rejection of arguments and methodologies from the past. Rather, it is a necessary refinement of these arguments and methodologies according to new cultural trends and the circumstances of our times. Indeed, there is a sense in which every major cultural shift demands a "new apologetics." Thus, the New Apologetics is a recalibration of sorts, a reconsideration and adjustment of arguments, methods, and expressions according to the specific requirements of what is now a post-Christian, post-religious, post-new atheist, relativistic, scientistic, ideology-ridden society (The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era, pg. xii).

One method of apologetics that is seemingly somewhat new—at least in Catholic circles—is presuppositionalism. The basic idea of presuppositionalism is that, rather than seeking to establish the truth of Christianity on neutral ground by way of philosophical, theological, scientific, and historical argumentation "from the ground up," the apologist instead presupposes the truth of Christianity as a worldview. From there, the apologist shows how the Christian worldview successfully accounts for reality (this is the positive apologetic task). Then, the apologist shows that opposing worldviews cannot successfully account for reality (this is the negative apologetic task). In particular, certain aspects of reality are especially emphasized such as the possibility of knowledge, the universal validity of the laws of logic, and the objectivity of moral values and duties. The end result is that the Christian worldview is vindicated. While this describes the essential core of presuppositionalism as an apologetic method, there are various ways in which to elaborate upon this essential core.

Presuppositionalism contrasts with what we can call evidentialism (sometimes this is called classical apologetics, but I am avoiding this label since it is possibly tendentious), which consists in starting on "neutral ground" and arguing from a foundation of shared, basic beliefs to the truth of Christianity by building up, piece by piece, each essential element of Christian belief. First, one argues for objective truth and the possibility of knowledge. Then, one argues for the existence of God. Finally, one argues for Christian truth claims. Natural theology is at the front and center of this method. Protestant apologist Steven B. Cowan, in his article "Five Ways to Make the Case for God," describes the differences between evidentialism and presuppositionalism as follows:

The evidentialist methods assume that unbelievers and believers share common rational principles (logic, rules of evidence, etc.) that allow for the construction of apologetic arguments that ought to persuade any rational person. But, due to the noetic effects of sin, presuppositionalists hold that there is no such common ground between believers and unbelievers. There are no neutral premises or facts that the apologist may appeal to in formulating an argument. The premises of any argument that the Christian apologist presents necessarily presuppose the truth of the Christian worldview. Many presuppositionalists would go so far as to say that any such argument presupposes the truth of the entire Christian revelation in Scripture.
In this scenario, the apologist must simply presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics. He cannot offer arguments with premises that could be accepted consistently by unbelievers. The presuppositionalist attempts, then, to argue transcendentally. That is, he argues that all meaning and thought—indeed, every fact—logically presupposes the truth of Scripture and the existence of the God it reveals.

One point that I would want to add and emphasize is that presuppositionalists recognize that their interlocutors might believe in things like the possibility of knowledge, the universal validity of the laws of logic, and the objectivity of moral values and duties, but presuppositionalists will contend that such beliefs are ultimately groundless apart from the Christian worldview. Consequently, in a debate context, these sorts of basic beliefs on the part of unbelievers cannot and should not be taken for granted as if they were neutral and worldview-independent. Moreover, it should be pointed out that Cowan's mention of the "noetic effects of sin" is likely a reference to the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, which not all presuppositionalists accept.

Reformed or Catholic?

Today, presuppositionalism tends to be especially associated with the Reformed theological tradition. Apologists in this tradition include Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, and Jeff Durbin. Because of this association with Reformed theology, presuppositionalism as a method of apologetics tends to be dismissed by Catholic apologists. But more recently, thanks largely to the work of Jeremiah T. Bannister (a.k.a. "The Paleocrat"), Catholic presuppositionalism is beginning to gain some traction. Historically, as Jeremiah and others make the case for, this methodology was used by such eminent individuals as St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Francis de Sales. For an excellent and entertaining introduction to Catholic presuppositionalism, I highly recommend Jeremiah's video (HERE). One of Jeremiah's goals is to show that the presuppositionalist method of apologetics has its true home in Catholicism, not Reformed theology.

For Jeremiah, the reason to reject the Reformed brand of presuppositionalism is not so much because of its underlying method but rather because what it presupposes—especially the doctrine of sola Scriptura (which Jeremiah refers to as, and I quote, "poo-poo trash nonsense")—ultimately cannot stand up to scrutiny. By showing the bankruptcy of sola Scriptura, the Catholic presuppositionalist can beat the Reformed presuppositionalist at (supposedly) his own game. Another difference between Catholic and Reformed approaches to presuppositionalism is that Reformed presuppositionalists typically oppose natural theology (proving the existence and nature of God by natural, philosophical reason) because, as was mentioned above, they hold to the doctrine of total depravity. Consequently, they think that the light of natural reason is much too darkened by sin to be able to reason to the existence of God philosophically.

By contrast, Catholic presuppositionalists reject total depravity and hold that natural theology is, in principle, a successful project and has its legitimate place in apologetics. Indeed, that natural theology is in principle successful and legitimate was taught definitively by Vatican I: "If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason through the things which have been made: let him be anathema" (Dei filius, Canon II:1). In the main body of Dei filius, the Council references Romans 1:20 as the biblical basis of this dogma (see also Wisdom 13:1-9).

With respect to the relevance of this dogma to apologetic methodology, since natural theology is in principle successful, evidentialism as an apologetic method can in principle be successful. The Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin draws the following conclusion from this: "Proponents of [approaches to apologetics other than evidentialism], at least in Catholic circles, cannot legitimately claim that the [evidentialist] method is inherently unworkable, as some Evangelicals have argued...On the other hand, the Council did not say that the [evidentialist] method is the only workable approach" ("Cowan’s 'Five Ways': A Catholic Perspective"). Hence, while Catholic presuppositionalists cannot reject evidentialism in principle, they do not need to adopt it in practice.

Why Presuppositionalism?

On that note, why do Catholic presuppositionalists prefer their method to evidentialism if they must admit that evidentialism is in principle successful? The basic answer, as I understand it, is that many presuppositionalists are convinced that the evidentialist method, while in principle and objectively successful is, in our current cultural milieu, in practice and subjectively unsuccessful (in terms of actually persuading unbelievers). Why this can often indeed be the case is excellently captured by the historian Brad S. Gregory's withering deconstruction and critique of modernity and its roots in the Protestant "Reformation":

Today, within the limits of the law, literally anything goes as far as truth claims and religious practices are concerned—an extension and latter-day manifestation of the full range of views produced by the Reformation unfettered. In the public sphere are protected not only all Protestant views derived from the principle of sola scriptura and its adjuncts, but any and all religions, religious claims, and post-religious claims that fill a similar niche. Hence whatever the particular country in which they happen to reside, all Westerners now live in the Kingdom of Whatever. For a great many people, subjective, individual preference seems to be the extent of any foundation for answers to the Life Questions amid our hyperpluralism. For them, the basis for such answers in Western society today is literally arbitrary, in the etymological sense: it is a function of the arbitrium, the individual human will...

Thank goodness, then, for reason alone, the real basis for truth claims that are actually true. Without sober, dispassionate rationality that has transcended the arbitrary, ever-proliferating assertions made on the basis of the Bible, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, new divine revelation, or reason still tethered to scripture, we might never have emancipated ourselves from the pre-Enlightenment labyrinth. Or so one might think, and so many champions of secular reason have argued in one way or another, from the seventeenth century up to and including the present. The real way out of the early modern Christian controversies concerning answers to the Life Questions, it was and by some still is alleged, was not a Band-Aid, but an amputation: an unblinking, uncompromising application of reason alone by modern philosophy and science. Not God but Nature, not enthusiasm but empiricism, not revelation but reason would liberate human beings from the primitive practices and senseless stupidities of Christian conflicts—written in the blood of religious wars no less than in the ink of theological polemics.

The credo of modern philosophy, the various expressions of the Enlightenment, and nineteenth-century notions of progress would be that sola ratio could achieve what sola scriptura manifestly could not. A clean break with the past was necessary, rejecting Christianity's interminable doctrinal controversies and destructive religious wars. Thus would the way be cleared to a brighter, more rational, more prosperous future for humanity...

As with Protestantism since the early 1520s, one need not investigate every instance [of modern philosophy] to see the shared assumptions that had major historical consequences and therefore have explanatory power in understanding the makings of modernity...Since the seventeenth century, modern philosophers with universal, foundationalist ambitions have sought to offer post-religious, rational answers to the Life Questions. Had they either agreed among themselves, or were they discernibly engaged in an intellectually cumulative enterprise such as modern physics, chemistry, or biology, there would be evidence for a claim that reason has replaced religion, or at least a basis to hope that it might eventually do so. But neither is even remotely the case. This is apparent from a cursory familiarity with the history of modern philosophy since the early seventeenth century, and with the realities of academic philosophy today...

Here it can simply be observed that in no domain of philosophy since the seventeenth century has there ever been even general agreement about what reason dictates, discloses, or prescribes, whether in terms of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, or morality. To see this does not demand mastery of abstruse postmodern thought; it requires only a competent survey course in the history of modern philosophy. The reason is straightforward: reason "alone" is never without assumptions and a starting point, which are always vulnerable to critique and subversion because they are never self-evident. This applies to Descartes's cogito, Spinoza's conviction that the human intellect is adequate to reality, and Kant's Newtonian views underlying his sharp separation between phenomena and noumena. It applies as well to Marx's atheism and materialism, Husserl's account of subjectivity, and Heidegger's assumption that metaphysics rather than ethics is philosophia prima. Like all modern philosophers in this tradition, Hume believed he was laying hitherto unrecognized foundations for truth based on reason (or in his case, showing what was left of them after his skeptical critique). In fact, he not only characterized philosophy in his own day, but, like Luther contra Zwingli, proved uncannily prophetic despite himself: "There is nothing which is not the subject of debate, and in which men of learning are not of contrary opinions." Looking to reason as a "regulative idea" rather than as an apodictic foundation, in the manner of certain German Idealist thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, alters this reality not at all—on the contrary, it introduces a new issue about which "men [and women] of learning" can and do disagree...

Modern philosophy sought to provide what Protestantism could not, via reason rather than scripture. Not only has it failed thus far, but judging from the last four centuries as well as from contemporary philosophy, there is no reason to think that it might ever succeed...Historically and empirically, modern philosophy, like Protestantism, has produced and continues to yield an ever-proliferating number of truth claims, the institutional incubators of which are modern, liberal states. Sola ratio has not overcome the problem that stemmed from sola scriptura, but rather replicated it in a secular, rationalist register.

This realization should not be construed as an indictment of reason per se, without which any rational endeavor would be impossible—a point lost on those postmodern irrationalists who self-contradictorily use reason in attacking reason as such. Nor does it dim the analytical light that philosophers can and do shed on a wide range of issues. But it does strongly suggest that reason alone is as unlikely a candidate for answering the Life Questions as is scripture alone, claims about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, or assertions of new divine revelation (The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, pg. 112-113, 123-126).

Given these contemporary realities, evidentialism as a method of apologetics, presuppositionalists might argue, just isn't effective in the way that it was in the past. Because, as modern history shows, people can reason themselves into seemingly any belief, the arguments of natural theology, though sound in themselves, are not going to be persuasive to people, given that they will find some way to rationalize their rejection of at least some of the premises. What's needed today in apologetics is a way to transcend this dialectical paralysis. In the spirit of the New Apologetics, what's needed is, to repeat a quote from Matthew Nelson in the introduction of this post, "a recalibration of sorts, a reconsideration and adjustment of arguments, methods, and expressions according to the specific requirements of what is now a post-Christian, post-religious, post-new atheist, relativistic, scientistic, ideology-ridden society" (The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era, pg. xii). Presuppositionalists argue that their method is just the recalibration that apologetics needs. If people can reason themselves into whatever beliefs they want, then what apologists should do is not merely offer alternative premises to accept; rather, they should seek to show that, regardless of the conclusions that people are currently reasoning to, their very ability to reason at all must ultimately presuppose the Christian worldview. And this is precisely the methodology of presuppositionalism.

Catholic Criticism of Presuppositionalism

Not all Catholic apologists, however, agree that presuppositionalism is the recalibration that apologetics needs. Many Catholics are quite critical of presuppositionalism as a method of apologetics. As I am currently understanding the dialectic amongst Catholics on presuppositionalism (and, to be honest, I am still quite new to it), there seems to be a number of misconceptions and instances of talking past one another due to terminological confusion and equivocation, largely (I think) due to presuppositionalism's association with Reformed theology and apologetics. As a case in point, I want to interact with Catholic apologist Trent Horn's critique of presuppositionalism in his article "The Case for Natural Theology" (for additional discussion, I refer the reader to a conversation between Trent and Jimmy Akin HERE). The long and short of it is that Trent does not think that presuppositionalism is a viable methodology for apologetics. Because Trent's critique is sufficiently short, I will quote it at length:


First, if a presuppositionalist says that things such as knowledge, logic, or morality exist and only the presupposition of God’s existence explains their existence, then this is really just a variation of natural theology. In this case, the presuppositionalist must give arguments that show (1) logic, morality, and knowledge really do exist, and (2) they have no natural explanations but only a supernatural explanation.

However, if a presuppositionalist says we just must start with the God of Christian theism to understand anything at all, then he’s basically saying we must start with the Creator and use that to show knowledge is possible, and so this is the only way we can know the Creator exists. But as the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig says, “Presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism” (Apologetics: Five Views, Kindle version).

We know this is the case because we could ask the Christian presuppositionalist why someone couldn’t start with one of the following presuppositions instead of Christian theism:

  1. Atheistic nihilism, which says we are mistaken and that we actually live in an illogical, amoral, unintelligible universe

  2. Atheistic Platonism, which says logic, knowledge, and morality are abstract concepts or unexplained brute facts

  3. Polytheism or non-Christian monotheism such as Judaism or Islam

  4. One of the many forms of Christian theism a presuppositionalist might disagree with, such as Calvinist presuppositionalism or even presupposing the Catholic view of God, which many presuppositionalists also reject

And once again, the dilemma raises its ugly head. If the presuppositionalist offers arguments that claim these other presuppositions don’t work, and only his theology explains the world, then he’s doing natural theology, albeit in a strange, backward sort of way. But if he simply asserts that his brand of theism must be our starting point, then he’s making an invalid argument that we need not take seriously, since it assumes the very thing it is trying to prove.


In response, I want to examine both parts of the dilemma that Trent poses to the presuppositionalist, starting with the second horn (no pun intended) that Trent claims amounts to the fallacy of begging the question. The argument that Trent is attributing to presuppositionalists is somewhat puzzling to me: "[The presuppositionalist is] basically saying we must start with the Creator and use that to show knowledge is possible, and so this is the only way we can know the Creator exists." I suspect that my confusion stems from Trent's dual purpose in this context of refuting presuppositionalism and (as per the title of the article) defending the viability of natural theology. I think that there are actually two distinct arguments here that are being run together. The first argument that I can glean is as follows:

  1. Knowledge is possible only if God exists.

  2. Knowledge is possible.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

With respect to this argument, I do not see how it is guilty of begging the question. The presuppositionalist would be guilty of begging the question only if the only reason he has for accepting the premises is because he already accepts the conclusion. But it is not at all obvious that this is the case with respect to this argument. I can think, for instance, that knowledge is possible without my prior belief in the existence of God being my only reason for thinking so. Perhaps, for instance, I am persuaded by Descartes' cogito ergo sum argument in his Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Similarly, on reflection, I can have reasons other than that I believe that God exists to think that knowledge is possible only if God exists. For instance, perhaps I am persuaded by C.S. Lewis' argument from reason in his Miracles and The Abolition of Man.

At this point, Trent might say that this argument, while not question begging, would be a piece of natural theology and so would not actually distinguish presuppositionalism from evidentialist apologetics, which is rooted in natural theology. But here it must be reminded that Catholic presuppositionalism does not reject natural theology in the first place. Furthermore, as I will get to shortly, the mere use of arguments should not be thought of as something that distinguishes presuppositionalism as a method from other methods of apologetics. The conclusion to be drawn from this is, I think, that Trent's target is a distinctly Reformed style of presuppositionalism. The second argument that I can glean is as follows:

  1. The only way that we can know anything is if we presuppose that God exists.

  2. We can know that God exists.

  3. Therefore, the only way that we can know that God exists is if we presuppose that God exists.

It is clear that this argument is aimed against natural theology. Consequently, Catholic presuppositionalists will reject it. With this argument, the presuppositionalist indeed seems to be guilty of begging the question. For the presuppositionalist can have reason to believe the first premise to be true only because he already believes the conclusion to be true. In response, the presuppositionalist could insist that such circularity is inevitable (and thus is not vicious but benign) when we get to the very foundation of what makes knowledge, logic, and rationality possible. The presuppositionalist is here, as Cowan said in the quotation of him above, making a transcendental argument. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes transcendental arguments as follows:

As standardly conceived, transcendental arguments are taken to be distinctive in involving a certain sort of claim, namely that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y—where then, given that Y is the case, it logically follows that X must be the case too. Moreover, because these arguments are generally used to respond to skeptics who take our knowledge claims to be problematic, the Y in question is then normally taken to be some fact about us or our mental life which the skeptic can be expected to accept without question (e.g., that we have experiences, or make certain judgements, or perform certain actions, or have certain capacities, and so on), where X is then something the skeptic doubts or denies (e.g., the existence of the external world, or of the necessary causal relation between events, or of other minds, or the force of moral reasons). In this way, it is hoped, skepticism can be overturned using transcendental arguments that embody such transcendental claims ("Transcendental Arguments").

The presuppositionalist might try to draw a parallel with the following argument:

  1. The only way that we can know that an argument is valid is if we presuppose that logic is real.

  2. We can know that this argument is valid.

  3. Therefore, the only way that we can know that this argument is valid is if we presuppose that logic is real.

Now here, the only reason that we can have to believe the first premise is that we already believe the conclusion. There is thus a kind of circularity to this argument. Nevertheless, the argument is sound and we all know it. We can't give non-circular arguments for the reality and validity of logic because the very enterprise of giving arguments must necessarily already presuppose the reality and validity of logic.

The Culpability of Atheists and the Self-Evidentiality of God's Existence

In response, an atheist, say, can point out that the difference between the two arguments is that the fundamental laws of logic such as, for example, the law of non-contradiction, are supremely self-evident. One cannot deny the principle of non-contradiction without simultaneously affirming it. By contrast, the existence of God is not self-evident as is made clear by the fact that there are many atheists who seem to be rational and have well-functioning rational faculties. As the atheist philosopher Graham Oppy writes:

It is a plain matter of fact that there are sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed, and reflective theists, sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed, and reflective atheists, and sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed, and reflective agnostics (Arguing About Gods, pg. 414).

In response to this, some presuppositionalists, particularly in the Reformed camp, will insist that the existence of God is supremely self-evident and that, in fact, atheists' rational faculties are not well-functioning, and this is due to the noetic effects of sin. In support of these contentions, they will appeal to the teaching of Sacred Scripture:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened" (Romans 1:18-21).

John Calvin elucidates these ideas as follows:

That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service (Institutes of the Christian Religion I, 3, 1).

Calvin's understanding of the natural knowledge of God that we have from beholding the creation is not that we make some sort of inference from the creation to the Creator à la natural theology. Rather, it is a kind of immediate and deeply moving perception of God. As Calvin explains:

We see there is no need of a long and laborious train of argument in order to obtain proofs which illustrate and assert the Divine Majesty. The few which we have merely touched, show them to be so immediately within our reach in every quarter, that we can trace them with the eye, or point to them with the finger. And here we must observe again (see chap. 2 s. 2), that the knowledge of God which we are invited to cultivate is not that which, resting satisfied with empty speculation, only flutters in the brain, but a knowledge which will prove substantial and fruitful wherever it is duly perceived, and rooted in the heart (ibid. I, 5, 9).

The Reformed Protestant philosopher Alvin Plantinga elucidates this as follows:

[T]his natural knowledge of God is not arrived at by inference or argument (for example the famous theistic proofs of natural theology) but in a much more immediate way. The deliverances of the sensus divinitatis [sense of the divine] are not quick inferences from the circumstances that trigger its operation. It isn’t that one beholds the night sky, notes that it is grand, and concludes that there must be such a person as God: as an argument, this would be pretty weak. It isn’t that one notes some feature of the Australian outback — that it is ancient and brooding, for example — and draws the conclusion that God exists. It is rather that upon the perception of the night sky or the mountain vista or the tiny flower these beliefs just arise within us. They arise in these circumstances; they are not conclusions from them. The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19): but not by way of serving as premises for an argument (Knowledge and Christian Belief, Ch. 3).

Rather than natural knowledge of God being rooted in inference, the Reformed tradition tends to see knowledge of God as being innate. As Plantinga explains:

It sounds as if Calvin thinks knowledge of God is innate, and hence such that one has it from the time he is born, “from his mother’s womb.” Still, perhaps Calvin doesn’t really mean to endorse the idea that, say, a one-­year-­old has this knowledge. The capacity for such knowledge is indeed innate, but a bit of maturity is required before it actually shows up. The capacity for arithmetical knowledge is innate; still, it doesn’t follow that we know elementary arithmetic from our mother’s womb; it takes a little maturity. My guess is Calvin thinks the same with respect to this knowledge of God; what one has from his mother’s womb is not this knowledge of God, but a capacity for it (ibid.).

And this innate sense of God is triggered by beholding the creation. Plantinga continues,

Calvin’s idea is that the workings of the sensus divinitatis are triggered or occasioned by a wide variety of circumstances, including in particular some of the glories of nature: the marvelous, impressive beauty of the night sky; the timeless crash and roar of the surf that resonates deep within us; the majestic grandeur of the mountains (the North Cascades, say, as viewed from Whatcom Pass); the ancient, brooding presence of the Australian outback; the thunder of a great waterfall. But it isn’t only grandeur and majesty that counts; he would say the same for the subtle play of sunlight on a field in spring, or the dainty, articulate beauty of a tiny flower, or aspen leaves shimmering and dancing in the breeze: “there is no spot in the universe,” he says, “wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory” (ibid.).

But if everyone—atheists included—has this sensus divinitatis, then why is there unbelief? According to the Reformed tradition, the reason that atheists do not believe in God is due to sin having darkened their mind and corrupted the sensus divinitatis. As Calvin explains,

But though experience testifies that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found who cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity so far is it from yielding fruit in its season. Moreover, while some lose themselves in superstitious observances, and others, of set purpose, wickedly revolt from God, the result is that, in regard to the true knowledge of him, all are so degenerate, that in no part of the world can genuine godliness be found. In saying that some fall away into superstition, I mean not to insinuate that their excessive absurdity frees them from guilt; for the blindness under which they labour is almost invariably accompanied with vain pride and stubbornness (Institutes of the Christian Religion I, 4, 1).

Plantinga puts it this way:

[T]his natural knowledge of God has in many or most cases been compromised, weakened, reduced, smothered, overlaid, or impeded by sin and its consequences. Due to sin, the knowledge of God provided by the sensus divinitatis, prior to faith and regeneration, is both narrowed in scope and partially suppressed. The faculty itself may be diseased and thus partly or wholly disabled. There is such a thing as cognitive disease; there is blindness, deafness, inability to tell right from wrong, insanity; and there are analogues of these conditions with respect to the operation of the sensus divinitatis (Knowledge and Christian Belief, Ch. 3).

An atheist might uncharitably interpret all of this as essentially amounting to the following: "You're only an atheist because you're a bad person!" Indeed, some Reformed presuppositionalists actually do argue somewhat along these lines. Needless to say, this is not exactly a winning apologetic. It's a rhetorically provocative and over-simplistic move that tends to produce more heat than light. In response to this line of thinking, the aforementioned atheist philosopher Graham Oppy writes,

[O]ne might stamp one’s foot, and insist – contrary to what I take to be the plain evidence – that it is not true that there are sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed, and reflective people on both sides in this dispute. If that is how you see the debate, then, doubtless you will suppose that while you are entitled to your considered judgments, you cannot have any sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed, and reflective opponents who have genuinely considered judgments on these matters – and you will be likely to go in for the kind of dismissive abuse that characterises so much of the discussion of the question of the existence of [God]. While it cannot be that those who believe in the existence of [God] and those who do not believe in the existence of [God] are both right, I do not see any reason why we need to suppose that all of those who fall into one of these categories are thereby shown to be unreasonable, or culpably ill-informed, or stupid, or ..., in their assessment of the relevant considerations (Arguing About Gods, pg. 415).

Of course, the Reformed presuppositionalist will respond by saying that the fact that atheists are "unreasonable" and "culpably ill-informed" is what Scripture teaches and so there is warrant for holding to this position; indeed, there is supreme warrant, considering the divine source. Be that as it may, this is not exactly how I think we should understand St. Paul's teaching in Romans. What is clear from Romans is that, at least objectively speaking, unbelievers are without excuse because God's existence is sufficiently clear. Indeed, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'" (Psalm 14:1).

And as the wise man says,

"For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works...For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. Yet these men are little to be blamed, for perhaps they go astray while seeking God and desiring to find him. For as they live among his works they keep searching, and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful. Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?" (Wisdom 13:1,5-9)

These passages from the Psalms and Wisdom in conjunction with Romans make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that atheists are culpably ignorant of the existence of God. But although culpably ignorant, they are not necessarily liars. Even taken at their strongest, these passages do not teach that when an atheist says that he does not believe in God he is lying. As a general rule, we should not doubt an atheist's sincerity. This is a mistake that some Reformed presuppositionalists make. Many atheists are, if the reader will excuse the pun, acting in good faith. At the same time, we must not water down the teaching of Scripture that atheists are in some way culpable for their unbelief. If they weren't, then their unbelief could not be justly punished and there would thus not be a barrier to their salvation. But this is plainly false. For "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). And also, "without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Lastly, "But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8, emphasis added).

Furthermore, given the teaching of Scripture, while I think that it must be maintained that atheists are in some way culpably ignorant, it does not need to be maintained that atheists are irrational. For example, consider a doctor who neglected his studies in medical school but was still able to get by and get his degree. Suppose he then goes on to unintentionally misdiagnose one of his patients resulting in great harm. Suppose further that the reason for the misdiagnosis is that he was ignorant of something he should have learned in medical school but didn't due to his negligence. So, the misdiagnosis stemmed from his ignorance, and given his negligence in medical school, it is culpable ignorance. But the doctor was not necessarily irrational in his misdiagnosis. Given what he knew, the diagnosis that he gave could have been rational for him. Nevertheless, he ought to have known better than he did. Consequently, he can be justly punished by the law for malpractice. Similarly, an atheist might be rational in his unbelief given that he is ignorant of the evidence that demonstrates God's existence. Nevertheless, he ought to be aware of such evidence. Hence, he is justly punished by God for his unbelief. Ludwig Ott explains this well:

As far as the possibility of atheism is concerned, it cannot be denied that there are atheistic doctrinal systems (materialism, pantheism) and practical atheists, that is, people who live as if there were no God. The possibility that there are also subjectively convinced theoretical atheists, is founded in the spiritual and moral weakness of man, and on the fact that the proofs of God are not immediately, but only indirectly evident. But as the knowledge of God can easily be gained from contemplation of nature and the life of the soul, it will not be possible to adhere permanently to an honest and positive conviction of the nonexistence of God. An inculpable and invincible ignorance regarding the existence of God is not possible for a long time in a normal, grown-up person, in view of the facility of the natural knowledge of God attested in Sacred Scripture and in Tradition. (Rom. 1:20: "there is no excuse for them"; ita ut sint inexcusabiles,) Cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 19-21 (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pg. 18).

This understanding, I think, does justice both to the teaching of Sacred Scripture and to our common experience that there are sincere and rational atheists. But if they are sincere and rational, how can atheists be morally culpable for their unbelief? The answer, according to Scripture, is that they "by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them" (Romans 1:18-19). St. Paul does not present atheism as a predominantly intellectual problem (which seems to reinforce the idea that atheists can indeed be rational); rather, he presents it as a moral problem. The Catechism of the Catholic Church similarly presents atheism as a moral problem: "Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion" (CCC 2125).

But if atheists are suppressing the truth, doesn't this make them liars, contrary to my claim that there are sincere atheists? In a word, no. And this is because of the possibility of self-deception, and self-deception can happen subconsciously. Consider how some people who have experienced past trauma deceive themselves by (in some cases subconsciously) suppressing certain truths. For instance, the mother of a convicted serial killer might be so traumatized by the truth that her beloved son is a cold-hearted killer that she lives in denial, unable to accept the truth. Depending on the circumstances, this person could come to sincerely believe that her son is no killer. If someone were to ask her whether her son is a killer, she may sincerely reply in the negative. She isn't necessarily lying, but she is clearly caught in a case of self-deception. A similar thing, possibly, is going on with respect to atheists. However, rather than trauma darkening the mind to the truth as in the case of the mother whose son is a convicted serial killer, in the case of atheists, it is sin that darkens the mind to the truth that God exists.

At this point, it might be objected that if an atheist's mind is darkened to the point of no longer being able to recognize the truth that God exists, then it seems that he cannot therefore be culpable for his unbelief. After all, it isn't as if we would say that the mother whose son is a convicted serial killer is culpable for her inability to accept the truth, since her mind is hampered due to trauma. The crucial disanalogy in this case, however, is that the mother is not responsible for the trauma that caused her self-deception, whereas the atheist is responsible for the sin that caused his self-deception. While in a state of self-deception, an atheist might be inculpable for his unbelief insofar as we consider only his present state of self-deception. However, if his present state of self-deception was itself caused by past sins that he was culpable for, then that he is in a state of self-deception to begin with is due to culpable sin. And since unbelief is the result of being in a state of self-deception, the atheist bears at least some culpability for his unbelief. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Romans, compares the atheist's predicament to being drunk:

But someone might believe that they would be excluded from the sin of ungodliness on account of ignorance, as the Apostle says of himself in 1 Tim (1:13): "I received mercy, because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief." First, therefore, he shows that they are without excuse; secondly, he states their sin, there [v.23; n. 132] at And they changed the glory. In regard to the first it should be noted that ignorance excuses from guilt, when it precedes and causes guilt in such a way that the ignorance itself is not the result of guilt; for example, when a person, after exercising due caution, thinks he is striking a foe, when he is really striking his father. But if the ignorance is caused by guilt, it cannot excuse one from a fault that follows. Thus, if a person commits murder, because he is drunk, he is not excused from the guilt, because he sinned by intoxicating himself; indeed, according to the Philosopher, he deserves a double penalty (Commentary on Romans, Rom. 1:20b-25).

Thus, according to St. Thomas, even though someone who is drunk might not fully consent to the evils that he does while drunk, nevertheless if he consented to getting drunk in the first place, he is still culpable for what he does while drunk. So, if someone gets drunk and then commits murder while in such a drunken state, he is still culpable for the murder. With that being said, St. Thomas presents a more nuanced view on this issue in the Summa Theologica:

Two things are to be observed in drunkenness, as stated above (A. 1), namely the resulting defect and the preceding act. On the part of the resulting defect whereby the use of reason is fettered, drunkenness may be an excuse for sin, in so far as it causes an act to be involuntary through ignorance. But on the part of the preceding act, a distinction would seem necessary; because, if the drunkenness that results from that act be without sin, the subsequent sin is entirely excused from fault, as perhaps in the case of Lot [cf. Genesis 19:30-38]. If, however, the preceding act was sinful, the person is not altogether excused from the subsequent sin, because the latter is rendered voluntary through the voluntariness of the preceding act, inasmuch as it was through doing something unlawful that he fell into the subsequent sin. Nevertheless, the resulting sin is diminished, even as the character of voluntariness is diminished (ST II-II, 150, 4).

Thus, for St. Thomas, in his more mature thought, drunkenness can lesson one's culpability for sin, but it cannot excuse it altogether if the drunkenness was itself caused by a voluntary and sinful act. Along the same lines, an atheist's unbelief may be involuntary due to the atheist having a spiritually darkened mind, and this fact could reduce the atheist's culpability for his unbelief. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "The imputability of [atheism] can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances" (CCC 2125). However, the atheist cannot be excused altogether since having a spiritually darkened mind is itself caused by voluntary and sinful acts. As St. Paul writes,

"So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened...And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct." (Romans 1:20-21, 28)

This suffices to answer the objection. The value of apologetics with respect to atheists is that it can help to knock down intellectual barriers that are preventing the atheist from accepting the existence of God and consenting to the promptings of His grace. Even if an atheist is in some sort of state of self-deception, it does not follow that he cannot nevertheless be reasoned out of that self-deception. And every atheist is different. Each has his own intellectual barriers to faith. For instance, while some atheists want to believe in God but find that they are at present unable, some, such as the philosopher Thomas Nagel, admit that they have a bias against belief in God. Nagel writes,

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that (The Last Word, pg. 130).

"I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling." (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False; cf. A TALE OF TWO THOMASES).

Given the admission in the first quotation, might it be that Nagel doesn't lack the sensus divinitatis but is rather suppressing it, perhaps subconsciously, because he does not want there to be a God? Perhaps his desire for there not to be a God has placed him in a kind of spiritually intoxicated state that he needs to be revived from in order for the sensus divinitatis to function unimpaired. As the Church Father Tertullian put it,

The soul, although it be repressed in the prison of the body, though it be wrapped around depraved customs, though it be weakened by lust and passion, though it be enslaved to false gods, yet, when it revives as from intoxication or from sleep or from some illness and regains its health, it calls God by that only name which is proper to the true God. "Great God! Good God!" (Apology, quoted in The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I, pg. 113).

With respect to the Reformed idea that the existence of God is self-evident in the same way that the principle of non-contradiction is and that natural knowledge of God is innate, Catholic theology tends to have a somewhat different perspective. St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, in discussing whether the existence of God is self-evident, writes as follows:

A thing can be self-evident in either of two ways; on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us. A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as "Man is an animal," for animal is contained in the essence of man. If, therefore the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all; as is clear with regard to the first principles of demonstration [e.g., the principle of non-contradiction], the terms of which are common things that no one is ignorant of, such as being and non-being, whole and part, and such like. If, however, there are some to whom the essence of the predicate and subject is unknown, the proposition will be self-evident in itself, but not to those who do not know the meaning of the predicate and subject of the proposition...Therefore I say that this proposition, "God exists," of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject; because God is His own existence...Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature—namely, by effects (ST I, 2, 1).

So, while the existence of God is in itself self-evident in the sense that if we grasped the essence of God, we could see that He must exist, it is not self-evident to us, and this is because we do not know, at least not naturally and innately, God's essence. As the Psalmist says, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it" (Psalm 139:6). Rather, our natural knowledge of God derives from an intuitive inference from the existence and character of the creation to the existence of the Creator in a similar way in which we know that a fire must exist because we see the existence of smoke. With respect to the idea of having a kind of innate sense of the divine, St. Thomas writes,

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man's beatitude. For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him. This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man's perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else (ibid.).

So, while we do have a kind of innate sense of God, it is vague and confused (due to, we might add in order to extend an olive branch to our Reformed brethren, the noetic effects of sin). Through philosophical analysis and natural theology (and also by supernatural revelation), we can come to have a much more precise and complete knowledge of God's existence and His nature. The Thomist philosopher Edward Feser explains this as follows:

[T]hese theses -- that an inclination to believe in God is natural to us, but that without cultivation it results only in a general and confused conception of God -- are empirically well supported. Belief in a deity or deities of some sort is more or less a cultural universal, and is absent only where some effort is made to resist it...But the content of this belief varies fairly widely, and takes on a sophisticated and systematic form only when refined by philosophers and theologians ("Repressed knowledge of God?").

To return to the smoke and fire analogy, we intuitively grasp that fire exists from seeing its smoke, but our conception of this fire is rather vague. By more careful and systematic analysis of the smoke, we can arrive at a more precise concept of what the fire must be like (e.g., its distance away from us and its approximate size).

Thus, the existence of God is not rightly said to be self-evident in the same way that the principle of non-contradiction is. Indeed, if this were the case, it is hard to see what the value of apologetics could be. After all, if someone sincerely denies the principle of non-contradiction, what line of reasoning could persuade him? None. For every such line of reasoning would have to presuppose the principle of non-contradiction. Since the radical skeptic in question denies the principle, no line of reasoning could be hoped to persuade him. Along these lines, St. Thomas writes,

[I]t is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz., metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith (ST I, 1, 8).

At best, therefore, apologetics could serve a negative role in defending the Faith against objections. However, if apologetics is to serve a positive role in demonstrating the truth of the Faith to unbelievers, it must treat unbelievers like rational people. What the presuppositionalist should want to do is affirm unbelievers' belief in rationality and the first principles of reason and not try to castigate them as being hopelessly irrational (because they're not). From there, the presuppositionalist can argue that while unbelievers are correct in their beliefs in rationality and the first principles of reason, their worldview cannot make sense of these beliefs; consequently, their worldview should be rejected.

Whose Presuppositionalism?

Returning at last to Trent Horn's article, given all that has thus far been said, I do not think that Trent's case that presuppositionalism as a method of apologetics is essentially and hopelessly question begging has been made. For I think that Trent's case rests on a misconception of presuppositionalism (at least, good presuppositionalism—more on this in a moment), which is captured in his quote from William Lane Craig: “Presuppositionalism is guilty of a logical howler: it commits the informal fallacy of petitio principii, or begging the question, for it advocates presupposing the truth of Christian theism in order to prove Christian theism.” The idea seems to be that adopting presuppositionalism commits the apologist to basing his case on the following argument:

  1. Assume that God exists.

  2. Therefore, God exists.

And this argument is obviously worthless. The only thing it tells us is that if God exists, then He exists, which we, of course, already knew. It is, indeed, hopelessly question begging. But this construal of presuppositionalism is, in relation to Catholic presuppositionalism, a straw man, though not, indeed, one of Trent's and Craig's making. In their defense, there are actually some presuppositionalists who do conceive of their methodology in this way and amazingly see nothing wrong with it. For instance, the Protestant apologist Steve Schramm, in his article on presuppositionalism, entitled "My Journey from Evidential to Presuppositional Apologetics," writes as follows:

All ultimate authorities must be circular. Consider this logic: If God existed, He would claim to be God. God claims to be God. Therefore, God exists. This is a circular argument. But if it is true, it does not matter if it is circular or not. It would be irrational to conclude anything else IF the premises (If God existed, He would claim to be God. God claims to be God) are true. This is nothing but a tissue of logical errors and confusion. It is, as Jeremiah would colorfully put it, "poo-poo trash nonsense." First, arguments themselves are neither true nor false; rather, they are either sound or unsound. It is the premises in arguments which bear truth values, not the arguments themselves. Second, we can rewrite the argument for God's existence that Schramm proposes symbolically in propositional logic as follows (where G := "God exists" and C := "God claims to be God"):

  1. G ⊃ C

  2. C

  3. ∴ G.

I know the point Schramm is trying to make here (and it is not a good one anyway), and I will get to that shortly. But in fact, not only does this argument commit the informal fallacy of begging the question, it also commits the formal logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. Consequently, the argument is not even valid. Consider the following counterexample (involving my dog whose name is Koa) with the same logical form as Schramm's argument:

  1. If Koa is a cat, then Koa is an animal.

  2. Koa is an animal.

  3. Therefore, Koa is a cat.

We can rewrite this symbolically as follows (where C := "Koa is a cat" and A := "Koa is an animal"):

  1. C ⊃ A

  2. A

  3. ∴ C

Both premises are true, but the conclusion is false. Hence, this form of argument is logically invalid. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. Since, therefore, Schramm's argument follows the same logical pattern, it, too, is invalid. There is one way in which Schramm's argument can be made valid and that is if we have recourse to first-order predicate logic. We can symbolically represent Schramm's premises in predicate logic as follows (where G := "is God" and C := "claims to be God"):

  1. ∃x(Gx) ⊃ ∃x(Gx ⋅ Cx)

  2. ∃x(Gx ⋅ Cx)

The second premise, if true, immediately implies that God exists because the translation of "God claims to be God" in predicate logic reads as "There exists an x such that x is God and x claims to be God." (I will not get into the philosophical controversy about whether the existential quantifier of first-order logic carries with it ontological commitment; I will simply assume that it does for present purposes in order to be maximally charitable to Schramm). Consequently, the first premise is entirely superfluous with respect to deriving the desired conclusion. Still, on this rendering, the argument is at least logically valid since the conclusion follows immediately from the second premise, and the inference therefore does not rely on the fallacy of affirming the consequent. This, however, brings us to the other major problem, which is that the argument, even if valid, is egregiously guilty of begging the question. Schramm is correct that if the premises of a valid argument are true, then the conclusion must be true. And this is the case even if the argument is guilty of begging the question. On a small note, technically arguments themselves do not beg the question but rather arguers do. An arguer is guilty of begging the question if it is the case that the only reason that he accepts one or more of the premises in an argument is that he already accepts the conclusion. If in general there is no reason to accept the premises of an argument except that the conclusion is already accepted, then such arguments are dialectically (and apologetically) useless as no one who doesn't already accept the conclusion of the argument is going to accept the premises. So, even if a circular argument is sound, it will be useless to apologetics. To further illustrate this, consider the following argument against Schramm's brand of presuppositionalism:

  1. If Schramm's presuppositionalism is false, then Schramm's presuppositionalism is false.

  2. Schramm's presuppositionalism is false.

  3. Therefore, Schramm's presuppositionalism is false.

Will this argument convince Schramm? Doubtful. Therefore, presuppositionalism, however it is construed and elaborated upon, had better not hang its hat on such circular argumentation. To do so would be to render itself useless. If, therefore, presuppositionalists concede that their method is based on the kind of circular reasoning that Schramm appeals to, then presuppositionalism, as a method of apologetics, is in trouble. If Trent and Craig have someone like Schramm in mind in their critiques of presuppositionalism, then I can understand where they are coming from. However, this is not at all how every presuppositionalist understands his methodology. Contrary to this—to use Craig's term—"howler" version of presuppositionalism, I do think that there is a good and effective version such as is defended, for instance, by the aforementioned Jeremiah Bannister.

I think a stumbling block in critical discussions of presuppositionalism is the name "presuppositionalism" and the language in general of "presupposing" the Christian worldview. The name itself I think can engender suspicions that the apologist is simply assuming what is to be proved without argument. This conception is what leads Trent to ask why it is that we cannot simply presuppose atheistic nihilism, a point in Trent's article that Jeremiah is very critical of. Jeremiah's objection is that the reason we cannot presuppose atheistic nihilism is because it cannot make sense of reality and consequently collapses in on itself.

This is where I think an equivocation is being made. For, in this case, Trent and Jeremiah are simply not talking about the same presuppositionalism. For Trent, presuppositionalism is the method of arbitrarily assuming what is to be proved without argument. This is bad presuppositionalism. For Jeremiah, presuppositionalism is (1) the recognition that the Christian apologist does not arbitrarily stipulate but indeed already knows Christianity to be true, and (2) the method of worldview comparison and analysis (what Jeremiah refers to as "systems analysis") in which the fundamental presuppositions of worldviews as a whole are examined and critiqued. This is good

presuppositionalism. Thus, it would seem that (good) presuppositionalism has a PR problem. Perhaps this could be solved by simply renaming it "systems apologetics"?

With all this being said, however, what I have referred to as "good presuppositionalism" is accused by Trent of being a misnomer. This is the first horn (again, no pun intended) of Trent's dilemma against presuppositionalism that I have opted to treat after the now already considered second horn. Trent writes that, "If the presuppositionalist offers arguments that claim [that] other presuppositions don’t work, and only his theology explains the world, then he’s doing natural theology, albeit in a strange, backward sort of way." The first thing to recognize is that the claim that this notion of presuppositionalism is making use of natural theology is no objection to distinctly Catholic

presuppositionalism, since Catholic presuppositionalists do not reject natural theology in the first place. But besides defending the validity of natural theology (which is the chief purpose of Trent's article), we can also understand this as an objection along the lines that this conception of presuppositionalism is not sufficiently differentiated from evidentialism as a method of apologetics.

But I think that this betrays too rigid a distinction on Trent's part between different methods of apologetics, particularly with respect to evidentialism and presuppositionalism. The difference between the two approaches is not that one uses arguments and reasoning, and the other doesn't. Rather, the difference between the two is their different emphases and starting points. The aforementioned Steven B. Cowan, in the same article by him referenced above, puts it this way: "[I]t might be said with some force that many of the differences in these various methods [of apologetics] are more matters of emphasis than differences in substance" ("Five Ways to Make the Case for God").

Consider first the differences in starting points. Evidentialism starts with the assumption that when it comes to things like the possibility of knowledge and the universal validity of the first principles of reason, the apologist and his interlocutor are on neutral, shared ground that can be taken for granted in a debate context. In the specific case of Catholic apologetics geared towards Protestants, for example, the evidentialist apologist starts with the assumption that when it comes to things like divine revelation and Sacred Scripture, the Catholic apologist and his Protestant interlocutor are on neutral, shared ground. By contrast, presuppositionalism does not concede any such neutral ground. To be sure, the presuppositionalist relies on his interlocutor sharing beliefs about first principles, but he will not simply grant those principles to his interlocutor. Instead, the presuppositionalist will hold his interlocutor's feet to the fire and will try to show that the very principles that the interlocutor relies on to critique the Christian worldview are principles which do not cohere with the interlocutor's own worldview.

Next, consider the different emphases of each method. Evidentialism proceeds by building a comprehensive case for the Christian worldview, piece by piece, argument by argument. The emphasis is on giving arguments, typically chains of arguments. By contrast, presuppositionalism proceeds by starting at the Christian worldview as a whole and showing how it accounts for reality (by way of argumentation, to be sure). From there, the fundamental presuppositions of alternative worldviews are examined and shown to be inconsistent with reality. The emphasis is on worldview comparison, comparing and contrasting whole theories of reality using criteria such as explanatory power, explanatory scope, and simplicity. Given these facts, one could characterize evidentialism as argument-driven and presuppositionalism as theory-driven. In a lot of ways, the presuppositionalist mindset is in line with the confirmation holism of the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. In a nutshell, confirmation holism essentially holds that individual truth claims are not confirmed or disconfirmed individually. Rather, what are confirmed and disconfirmed are sets of truth claims, i.e., whole theories. Whereas the evidentialist seeks to confirm truth claims individually and to thereby build up to a theory, the presuppositionalist seeks to confirm (and disconfirm) sets of truth claims by beginning with a theory.

Trent might still think that there is something backwards with the presuppositionalist approach in the sense that the presuppositionalist simply begins with the theory and descends to the data, whereas the proper order would seem to be to begin with the data and ascend to the theory. In response, a presuppositionalist could say that beginning with the data first rather than the theory is necessary only if one doesn't already know that the theory is true. And the Christian presuppositionalist will say that he already knows Christianity to be true through, for instance, divine revelation. Thus, it is not at all incumbent on the Christian apologist to act as if this were not the case or to in some other way feign ignorance and neutrality. The twentieth-century Thomist theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, though not himself a presuppositionalist, explains this as follows:

[A]ccording to the traditional conception [of apologetics], the apologete [i.e., apologist] does not present himself as though he were lacking faith and investigating into it like a mere seeker. Instead, as the name "apologete" implies, he is a defender of the faith...Therefore, whatever he may prudently need to do per accidens in order to convince this or that nonbeliever who is lacking in faith, nonetheless, per se and normally, he presents himself as the apostles and Fathers did—namely, as a member or minister of the Catholic Church (On Divine Revelation, Vol. I, pg. 73). Adversaries indeed object: Then the apologete does not proceed in a scientific manner because, under the direction of faith, he is already certain concerning the conclusion to be reached. Response: I concede that he does not proceed scientifically in the manner of physics or metaphysics. However, he proceeds in a rational and sapiential manner, like the prophets and apostles who were the first apologetes and presented themselves not as seekers but as defenders of the truth of faith. Nor does the direction of faith diminish the rationality of the defense, if the probative strength of the motives proposed by God can be defended by reason alone (ibid., pg. 134).
Indeed, Christ himself, as well as the apostles, gave the true notions of revelation, faith, credibility, and the Church's infallibility, and presented the signs for the defense of the faith. As a kind of minister of Christ and the Church, apologetics accepts all these things handed on by the Church's magisterium and rationally defends them by showing that those who deny or place in doubt the fact of revelation must necessarily deny (or place in doubt) what is held as certain in metaphysics, cosmology, or in history (e.g., the existence of God, his providence, the possibility of miracles, and the utterly certain historical testimony concerning the existence of miracles). And before making use of philosophical or historical argument, even fundamental theology judges it, at least negatively under the superior light of revelation and of faith inasmuch as that argument is not opposed to revealed data but, on the contrary, agrees with them. This is the privilege of the supreme science, which defends itself, as well as the stronghold of faith, from on high. The methodology (or the way) for demonstrating in this or that science must be determined from the object to be known and from the formal perspective under which it is known, just as motion is specified by the terminus toward which it tends. Thus, the methodology of apologetics must be determined from the conclusion that apologetics aims at—namely, the mysteries of faith are rationally credible and must be believed with the firmest faith, as revealed by God. However, quite clearly, this conclusion to be proven is not expressed against rationalists on the basis of the authority of divine revelation (for then there would be a vicious circle) but instead is expressed against them in a rational manner (ibid., pg. 164-165).

Thus, the Christian apologist does not defend the Faith as if he didn't already believe it; rather, he defends, by the light of natural reason under the guidance of faith, the Faith he already knows to be true. The apologist proves his case to the unbeliever using arguments relying on natural reason rather than faith, but he nevertheless draws from the Faith he already knows the resources needed for the rational defense of the Faith. As Garrigou-Lagrange puts it, "[R]evelation and faith direct their defense inasmuch as they indicate both the end to be obtained (credibility) and the rationally knowable efficacious means for obtaining it" (ibid., pg. 133).

In summary, both evidentialism and presuppositionalism as apologetic methods make use of reasoning and argumentation. There's really no way around this for any apologetic method. This is not what differentiates them. Rather, what differentiates them are their assumed starting points and their differing emphases. Thus, the first horn (no pun intended—last time, I promise!) of Trent's dilemma is rebutted. Having therefore successfully grasped the dilemma by the horns, we may conclude that presuppositionalism has not been shown to be an unviable method of apologetics.

Presupping the Presuppers: Using Catholic Presuppositionalism against Reformed/Protestant Presuppositionalists

As has been discussed already, what distinguishes Catholic presuppositionalism from Reformed presuppositionalism is not so much the underlying methodology itself but rather the fact that Reformed presuppositionalism holds to, as being among its fundamental presuppositions, the doctrines of total depravity and sola Scriptura. By contrast, Catholic presuppositionalism rejects both of these doctrines. The aforementioned Protestant apologist Steve Schramm, in his article referenced above, characterizes his sola Scriptura approach to presuppositionalism as follows:

Who or what is the ultimate authority in your life? In my life? If the Bible is true, God (and His Word) is the ultimate authority on ALL matters in everyone’s life. A person who rejects the Bible is no less under God’s authority than the most faithful of Christians. The difference is that he who rejects will have to do so at the expense of a contradictory and incoherent life. The core issue with evidentialism is that it cheats reality. It allows the unbeliever to decide, based on what looks most logical to Him [sic], whether or not God is true (for Him [sic]). It is for this reason that two highly educated intellectuals see the world two completely different ways–one sees God, the other sees nothing but nature. This is because the person’s worldview–their presuppositions about reality–has blinded them from seeing the truth ("My Journey from Evidential to Presuppositional Apologetics").

This line of thinking is common among Reformed presuppositionalists. Now, I have to say, the irony levels here are quite high. I want to draw attention especially to the last paragraph. If we substitute "sola Scriptura" for "evidentialism," along with a few other requisite modifications, then we can turn these sentiments against the Reformed presuppositionalist:

The core issue with sola Scriptura is that it cheats divine revelation. It allows Christians to decide, based on what looks most logical to them, whether or not the Bible teaches eternal security, the real presence in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, the validity of infant baptism, whether divorce is sometimes permitted, ETC. It is for this reason that two highly educated Christians see the Bible and its teachings in completely different ways. This is because the person's worldview and particular tradition of Christianity—their presuppositions about Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation—has blinded them from seeing true, apostolic doctrine.

Reformed presuppositionalists will often charge atheists with having to borrow from the Christian worldview in order to attack the Christian worldview (see, for example, Jeff Durbin). In particular, atheists have to borrow things like the possibility of knowledge and the universal validity of the laws of logic, which, presuppositionalists argue, have no grounding on an atheist worldview. A similar line of argument can be used by Catholic presuppositionalists against Reformed presuppositionalists. Reformed presuppositionalists have to borrow from the Catholic worldview in order to attack the Catholic worldview. In particular, Reformed presuppositionalists have to borrow things like the very canon of Sacred Scripture and conciliar definitions and creeds pertaining to doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation, which, especially with respect to the canon of Scripture, have inadequate or no grounding on a Reformed/Protestant worldview. As Catholic philosophers and apologists Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli write,

Protestants as well as Catholics believe the Bible is the authoritative and infallible Word of God. But how do they know it is the Word of God? What led them to this belief? Where did they learn it?
The answer to that question is not in question. It is a historical fact, not a theological opinion. They believe it because they were taught it—by their parents, teachers, ministers, and theologians, who were simply passing on the message that had been passed on to them and their teachers for almost two thousand years. In other words, they were taught to believe and love the Bible by the Church...
And how do we know the correct canon of the Bible, that is, the list of which books form the contents of the Bible? How do we know that the Gnostic Gospel of Saint Thomas is not part of God's infallible revelation but the book of Revelation is? Some so-called Christian theologians today prefer the Gnostic Gospels, and a few of the early Christian writers rejected the book of Revelation. (That was a minority position, but the Church has never determined her teaching by counting noses. There were more Arian heretics in the world than orthodox Catholic Christians for about a century. The answer to that question is also a historical fact. Protestants and Catholics alike know which books are in the Bible only because the Catholic Church decreed it: the Church defined the canon. And an infallible effect can come only from an infallible cause. If the Church is fallible, we cannot be sure that John's Gospel is true and Thomas' is not. And that means we cannot be sure whether the Incarnation was a fact or a mere appearance, or whether Jesus saves us from sin or from matter; for the latter is what the Gospel of Thomas teaches. We cannot even be sure how to be saved unless we know the canon of the Bible, for the Bible is the only book that tells us how to be saved (Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, pg. 443-444).

Thus, Protestants must climb out onto the branch of Catholicism to pick the fruit of Sacred Scripture only to then cut off the branch right from under themselves, a thoroughly self-defeating procedure. It is for this reason that just as Reformed presuppositionalists won't concede the universal validity of the laws of logic to atheists as being on neutral ground, neither will Catholic presuppositionalists concede Sacred Scripture to Protestants as being on neutral ground. It is in this way that presuppositionalism as a method of apologetics can be valuable and effective to use against Protestants, especially presuppositionalist Protestants who hold sola Scriptura as one of their presuppositions. A Catholic presuppositionalist could presuppose the authority of the Catholic Church and argue that without doing so, we cannot account for the very canon of Sacred Scripture; moreover, on the presupposition of sola Scriptura, we absolutely cannot account for the canon of Sacred Scripture (see my previous post (HERE) for some arguments along these lines). This particular instance of presuppositionalist apologetics is effective because the thesis (namely, the authority and identity of Sacred Scripture) whose truth requires the given presupposition (namely, the authority of the Catholic Church) is shared by both Catholics and Protestants, setting aside the issue of the Deuterocanon. In order, therefore, for Protestants to account for Sacred Scripture, they must ultimately presuppose the authority of the Catholic Church. From there, the problem of the Deuterocanon is additionally resolved at once because the Catholic Church, whose authority has to be presupposed to account for the canon of Sacred Scripture, has infallibly decreed that the Deuterocanon is, indeed, part of Sacred Scripture. In this way, the Reformed presuppositionalist's own method can be turned against him. In response, the Reformed presuppositionalist could just dig in his heels and insist on presupposing the canon of Sacred Scripture. In the same way, however, the atheist could just dig in his heals and insist on presupposing logic and rationality. The Reformed presuppositionalist will, of course, be quite unsatisfied with such stubbornness if the atheist insists on presupposing logic and rationality while not having an account of how his belief in atheism is compatible with such a presupposition. Mutatis mutandis for the Catholic and Reformed presuppositionalist with respect to the canon of Sacred Scripture and sola Scriptura. To the possible reply that the Holy Spirit can privately reveal the canon of Scripture to each individual Christian and thus an authoritative Church is not needed, I refer the reader to a previous post of mine HERE.

Limitations of Presuppositionalism

One final objection that I will here consider that could be raised against presuppositionalism is that, as a method, it is inadequate. For it seems that the presuppositionalist can only directly demonstrate that the Christian worldview is possible, not that it is actually true. As Jimmy Akin writes, Presuppositionalists frequently claim that only Christianity is capable of making sense of things and providing a consistent basis for rational thought. But this claim is obviously false. Unless one wants to say that Jews prior to the time of Christ were irrational, then it would seem that one can be rational even if one has only a subset of Christian revelation ("Cowan’s 'Five Ways': A Catholic Perspective"). In order to show that the Christian worldview is actually true, the presuppositionalist would have to show that his worldview is possible and that no other worldview is possible, and this seems like an infeasible task. In response, the presuppositionalist could adopt the strategy of inference to the best explanation. We don't have to consider all possible worldviews; rather, we just have to consider all worldviews that are considered "live options" by our interlocutor. From there, we add the Christian worldview to the mix (if it isn't there already), and we show that all of the other live option worldviews collapse. From there, we bring our interlocutor to either the Christian worldview or sheer skepticism. Since skepticism is an unlivable worldview that collapses in on itself as well (or so we could argue), we therefore finally bring our interlocutor to accepting the Christian worldview. The criticism to this approach, however, is that it is not adequate for a thoroughly scientific apologetics, whereby the truth of Christianity (Catholicism in particular) is rigorously, systematically, and definitively demonstrated in a timeless, context-independent sort of way. The aforementioned philosopher Edward Feser expresses these concerns as follows:

Rightly understood, apologetics is not a grab bag of ad hoc moves designed merely to win over converts by whatever means are at hand. It is not a kind of rhetoric. It is a kind of science, in the broad sense of a systematic body of objective knowledge. It has a philosophical foundation and a logical structure, a proper ordering of topics integrated into a theoretically coherent whole...One problem with too much contemporary apologetics is that it reflects little awareness of this theoretical structure of the discipline and the proper ordering of its subject matter ("Pre-Christian apologetics").

Along these same lines, Garrigou-Lagrange writes,

There are...apologies concerning the whole of the Christian religion, but, at least in their manner of defending, they do not arrive at the universal because their argumentation depends on the circumstances of time and place in which they are conceived. Frequently, such arguments do not have an absolute value but have only a value that is relative to the men of a given time. And because science is not concerned with particulars, such apologies do not constitute a given science or part of a science. By contrast, "apologetics" means "the universal defense of the faith both from the perspective of the object and from the perspective of the manner of defending." From the perspective of the object, this is indeed clear, for it is a defense not of a given person or mystery, nor of all the mysteries in particular, but of the whole Christian religion in general, given that it intends to show that this religion is revealed by God. From the perspective of the manner [of defending the faith], apologetics is universal because its defensive argumentation does not depend on the circumstances of a given time or place but instead has an absolute value inasmuch as it is founded both on the most certain principles of natural reason (or of metaphysics) and on historical testimonies that are certain. Thus, as much from its object as in its manner [of defending], apologetics, if it can so proceed, will merit the name of science (or, at least, that of being a part of a science) (On Divine Revelation, Vol. I, pg. 128-129).

As a philosopher and a scientist, I very much resonate with Feser's and Garrigou-Lagrange's lofty conception of apologetics. In response to this, however, I think that what primarily motivates presuppositionalists to adopt the methodology they do is pragmatism. It's nice to have a systematic, scientific apologetics from a theoretical perspective. But the primary focus of practical apologetics should be on effective evangelization. On this score, Jeremiah said something in one of his videos on presuppositionalism that really struck me: the problem with the philosophically highfalutin approach to apologetics is that it effectively places apologetics out of the reach of most Christians, thus making it impossible for them to obey the command of St. Peter: "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Not everyone has the philosophical training to defend, for instance, the kalam cosmological argument. Nor is everyone familiar with the daunting subjects of metaphysics and formal logic. But everyone is familiar with the facts that it's possible to know things, the law of non-contradiction is universal, there are objective moral values and duties, Sacred Scripture doesn't interpret itself, and so on. And they can be much more easily trained to see how so many of the worldviews in our culture that compete with Catholicism collapse under the weight of these basic features of reality than they can be trained in all of the complexities and subtleties of academic philosophy. Or so presuppositionalists might argue. It still seems to me, however, that at the end of the day, the presuppositionalist is going to have to get philosophically sophisticated when dealing with a philosophically sophisticated interlocutor. With that being said, maybe the better argument is that for the average apologist and the average interlocutor, presuppositionalism is more accessible and more effective in practice than evidentialism. I cannot currently speak to this one way or another since I do not yet have actual experience using or teaching the presuppositionalist method. In any case, in the same article, Feser expresses his concern with a predominantly pragmatic approach to apologetics as follows:

Another problem with too much contemporary apologetics is that it takes a “kitchen sink” approach that seems more interested in persuading the listener than in presenting the truth. Hence an apologist will sometimes dump out onto the page a bevy of arguments that have been or could be given for some claim, leaving it vague whether he actually accepts all of them himself. This is the apologist-as-salesman, happy as long as you walk out of the store with something, and not too particular about what it is. Welcome to 31 Theological Flavors! Come on in and sample our wide array of proofs for God’s existence. See one you like? Excellent choice, shall I box it up for you or will you be wearing it right away?

In response, I should first say that Feser is not expressly addressing presuppositionalism in his article. In fact, Feser's criticism of the "kitchen sink" approach to apologetics actually seems to be directed at a poorly executed evidentialist approach to apologetics in which the apologist proceeds to just "dump out onto the page a bevy of arguments." Presuppositionalists would be equally critical of this apologetic approach. Furthermore, presuppositionalists do not need to dispute the idea that there should be a rigorous scientific foundation for apologetics. They would simply add that in order for apologetics to be useful, it must be able to reach the people. By way of analogy, consider mathematicians who write textbooks for grade school children. The approach to mathematics in such textbooks is going to be very different than in doctoral dissertations or professional monographs in which mathematics is presented in all of its systematic rigor. These mathematicians know that mathematics should be set on a rigorous scientific foundation. Nevertheless, the goal of these textbooks is to bring mathematics to the people, in this case to grade school children. And just as the grade school children can learn to do sound mathematics without needing to understand the rigorous foundations of mathematics, so too can the average Christian learn to do sound apologetics without needing to understand the rigorous scientific foundations of apologetics. The rigorous foundations can be left to the professionals. Thus, presuppositionalism's emphasis on practical and effective apologetics is not, or at least need not be, guilty of taking a "kitchen sink" approach to apologetics. One final thing to always keep in mind is that the presuppositionalist method can be supplemented with other methods as well. The transcendental style of argumentation characteristic of presuppositionalism can be complemented with argumentation more characteristic of classical natural theology. While some presuppositionalists try to rely exclusively on the transcendental argument, others are quite happy to use other arguments alongside it. The former are sometimes referred to as hard presuppositionalists, while the latter are referred to as soft presuppositionalists. An article on presuppositionalism from Zondervan Academic explains this distinction as follows:


Hard presuppositionalists maintain that a transcendental argument should be rigidly distinguished from evidence-based arguments. However, soft presuppositionalists, such as John Frame, argue that the transcendental argument, rather than simply being seen as one argument among many, should be seen as the goal of all apologetic arguments: “We should be concerned to show that God is the condition of all meaning, and our epistemology should be consistent with that conclusion.” At the same time, Frame affirms that the transcendental argument is not a magic bullet, since its conclusion “cannot be reached in a single, simple syllogism.” He concludes, therefore, that a transcendental argument “normally, perhaps always, requires many subarguments . . . some of [which] may be traditional theistic proofs or Christian evidences.” In contrast to proponents of hard versions of presuppositionalism, Frame does not expect “that all the elements of biblical theism are presupposed in intelligible communication.” Frame also denies that many core Christian doctrines can be demonstrated with just the transcendental argument alone. Furthermore, while affirming that Christianity is “absolutely compelling,” soft versions of presuppositionalism allow that individual arguments can be helpful without being certain (i.e., probabilistic arguments) and that Scripture calls for evidence and arguments to be given in support of Christianity. Thus, while Frame is clear that arguments should be part of a larger transcendental case where God is the very “presupposition of rational thinking,” he argues that apologists can and should incorporate other types of arguments ("What Is Presuppositional Apologetics?").


Concluding Thoughts and Future Prospects

Not too long ago, I rejected presuppositionalism as a method of apologetics. I associated it exclusively with Reformed theology and its accompanying rejection of natural theology and commitment to the doctrines of total depravity and sola Scriptura. Thanks primarily to the work of Jeremiah Bannister, I have since changed my mind. Although presuppositional apologetics is sometimes done badly, that doesn't change the fact that it can be done well. It is my hope that Catholic apologists, although often critical and outright dismissive of it, will begin to see the viability and value of presuppositional apologetics. To do so would not require them to renounce other methods of apologetics. Rather, they can view presuppositionalism as one more tool in their apologetic toolbox. Jimmy Akin excellently expresses this sentiment as follows:

Because they have been focused on dealing with specific movements and individuals, Catholic apologists have been pushed toward what I call “toolbox apologetics,” which recognizes that there is not a single, prefabricated way to get the task of apologetics done. Instead, each situation is different, because people are coming to Christ from different places, and they have different questions and concerns. A workman may pull from his toolbox whatever tool is needed to do the job at hand, and in the same way an apologist must realize that he needs to shape his apologetics to serve the individuals he encounters. [M]any authors [seem] to think that there is only one right way to do apologetics, to which all apologists should conform. But when one takes the more practical, “toolbox” approach, it is possible to discern value in each of the apologetic methods. If done right, they all have their place in helping people toward faith ("Cowan’s 'Five Ways': A Catholic Perspective").

All of this, it seems to me, is fully in accord with the spirit of the New Apologetics. But where does Catholic presuppositionalism go from here? Jeremiah does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon, but, as Jeremiah himself points out, more Catholic apologists are needed if presuppositionalism is going to make a big evangelistic impact. I think that the best way to bring this about is for there to be more dialogue amongst Catholics on the viability of presuppositionalism. Perhaps this post will make a modest contribution to such dialogue. What would make a bigger impact, however, and what I would personally love to see, is a dialogue between Trent Horn and Jeremiah on presuppositionalism. Let's make it happen!


To read the next entry in this 3-part series, click here.

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