5 Presuppositions of Apologetics | Dewey Dovel

by | May 1, 2023 | Apologetics


What must be true in order for Christians to defend their faith against objections and unbelief?[1] What “first things” must be presupposed in order for God’s people to engage in the discipline of apologetics? While questions such as these have resulted in an abundance of spilled ink throughout church history, Herman Bavinck provides a robust answer in volume one of Reformed Dogmatics.

[Here is] the position from which alone a sound defense of the [Christian faith] can be undertaken. Apologetics cannot precede faith and does not attempt a priori to argue the truth of revelation. [Apologetics] assumes the truth and belief in the truth [ofmChristianity]. It does not, as the introductory part or as the foundational science, precede theology and dogmatics. It is itself a theological science through and through, which presupposes the faith and dogmatics and now maintains and defends the dogma against the opposition to which it is exposed. Thus understood, apologetics is not only perfectly justified but a science at all times… First of all, [apologetics] has the immediate advantage of forcing Christian theology to take deliberate account of the grounds on which it is based, of the principles on which it is constructed, and on the content it has within itself. [Apologetics] brings Christian theology out of the shadows of the mysticism of the human heart and into the full light of day. Apologetics, after all, was the first Christian science. Secondly, [apologetics] teaches that Christians, even though they cannot confer faith on anyone, need not hide from their opponents in embarrassed silence. With their faith [Christians] do not stand as isolated aliens in the midst of the world but find support for [their faith] in nature and history, in science and art, in society and state, in the heart and conscience of every human being. The Christian worldview alone is one that fits the reality of the world and of life. And finally, if [apologetics] seriously and scrupulously performs its tasks, it will very definitely succeed in impressing opponents with the truth of Christian revelation, refuting and silencing them. [Apologetics] cannot truly convert people to God. Not even the preaching of the gospel is able to do that; only God, by his Spirit, can accomplish that. But subject to this working of God and as a means in his hand, apologetics, like the ministry of the Word, can be a source of consummate blessing.[2]

While more can be said about the presuppositions associated with defending the faith, Bavinck’s insights present a biblical foundation to operate from. When considering the aforementioned excerpt holistically, we discover at least five presuppositions that make Christian apologetics possible. The remainder of this article will identify each of these presuppositions and briefly propose how followers of Christ should shape their approach to giving an answer for the hope within them (1 Pet. 3:15).


1. Christianity is True [3]

At the outset, this may seem like an obvious presupposition. After all, why would anybody defend the Christian faith if they themselves did not believe it to be true?

Ironically, there are some who believe that our approach to apologetics should be conducted from a posture of neutrality. From the vantage point of those who are of this mindset, we shouldn’t presuppose Christianity to be true when seeking to prove its truthfulness to other people. Those who maintain this perspective argue that it is circular reasoning to presuppose the certitude of what you are trying to persuade other people to believe. As this contention suggests, Christians need to find a way to agree on something that the unbeliever already believes, and then progressively work from that point of agreement to prove the validity of their faith. Only after establishing common ground can the Christian and non-Christian begin the journey of discussing whether biblical Christianity is true.[4]

However, if we believe that biblical Christianity accurately represents who God is and how God wants us to live in light of His own self-revelation, then it would be absurd to not presuppose the truthfulness of Christianity at every point in our apologetic efforts. This doesn’t mean that we fail to use evidences or persuasive forms of argumentation to show the intellectual plausibility of adhering to the Christian faith. Rather, we do so in conjunction with being unashamed of our identity as ambassadors for the kingdom of God. A great example of how to model this approach can be found in Acts 17:22-33.

When addressing the Athenian unbelievers at Mars Hill, the Apostle Paul appealed to general revelation as a way in which unbelievers can see tangible evidence of the triune God’s existence (Acts 17:22-29). After doing so, Paul boldly proclaimed the Gospel disclosed in history and special revelation, calling those who he addressed to repent of their sin and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-33). The Apostle Paul didn’t try to hide, disregard, or apologize for his presuppositions about the truthfulness of Christianity. On the contrary, despite pointing to evidences that were observable in general revelation, Paul championed his commitment to Christ at every point during his apologetic encounter. As followers of Jesus Christ living in the twenty first century, we should likewise be intentional to do the same when we engage in the task of defending our faith before unbelievers.


2. God is Knowable Through Revelation [5]

Historically, Christians have believed that God can be known through nature and through Scripture. God’s self-revelation in nature is what we designate as general revelation, and God’s self-revelation in Scripture is what we characterize as special revelation. Although there are many places in the Bible that we could turn to solidify the distinction between general revelation and special revelation, Psalm 19 sets both mediums in tandem with one another.[6]

In verses 1-6, we see the Psalmist’s awareness of God’s grandeur manifested throughout the world He has created. In doing so, the focus in this section of the Psalm is on the beauty and intricacy of creation that can be observed by all people around the world. On the other hand, verses 7-14 punctuate the supremacy of special revelation for enabling man to know God in a personal and salvific way. This element of the passage can be seen from the writer’s frequency in lauding the word of God throughout the second half of Psalm 19, along with the divine name revealed to God’s Old Covenant people being invoked seven times.

When perceiving this Psalm comprehensively, the evidence of God’s existence in general revelation is confirmed in special revelation, and special revelation builds off what can be known about God through general revelation. Of course, the Bible is clear that no sinner can ever be saved through the testimony of general revelation alone. Only through exposure to special revelation can a Hell-bound sinner be confronted with the words of eternal life (John 6:68; Romans 10:17). Nevertheless, general and special revelation equally testify to the fact that God can be known by human beings, and we should therefore appeal to both mediums of revelation in our apologetic efforts.[7]

It’s also important to note that our affirmations about general and special revelation necessitate that every aspect of creation is revelational about the triune God. Thus, at the practical level, we shouldn’t engage in apologetics apart from showing the unbeliever how everything in reality is connected to God in some way. Indeed, everything in reality functions to reveal the triune God’s glorious character to the cosmos. Listen to how Cornelius Van Til draws out these observations in his book, The Defense of the Faith.

God [has] witnessed to [mankind] through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time. No rational creature can escape this witness. It is the witness of the triune God whose face is before men everywhere and all the time. Even the lost in the hereafter cannot escape the revelation of God. God made man [as] a rational-moral creature. He will always be that. As such, he is confronted with God. He is addressed by God… To not know God, man would have to destroy himself. He cannot do this. There is no nonbeing into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and God’s voice. The mountains will not cover him; Hades will not hide him. Nothing can prevent [man from] being confronted “with him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).[8]

At bottom, God has so clearly revealed Himself in every aspect of reality that man cannot claim to be ignorant of divine revelation (Rom. 1:18-23). Although not all people will be privy to special revelation throughout human history, all people will be exposed to general revelation at every aspect of their life (Rom. 2:12-16). Therefore, as Christian apologists, we can rightly declare and presuppose that God is knowable by all people through His two appointed mediums of self-revelation: nature and Scripture.


3. Human Sense Perception is Generally Reliable [9]

There may not be a presupposition more fundamental to apologetics or more fundamental to human existence than the general reliability of our sense perception. Although inherently phenomenological in nature, sense perception is one of the primary mediums through which we experience and interpret reality.[10] As such, it is impossible for humans to function without assuming that their senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch provide viable information about the extramental world.

Moreover, when engaging in verbal or written dialogue with other people, all human beings assume that their minds have the ability to reason cogently and to correctly interpret the words that are being spoken or read. Stated differently, all people live in such a way that reflects a conviction in universal and unchanging laws that make intelligible experience possible in the world. Just having the ability to understand the words in this article confirm these truths. Additionally, when coming across other men and women in a public setting, we naturally assume that they are real people, with real emotions, and real memories. We believe that the chairs we sit in are real, that the cars we drive are real, and that the pain is real when we stub our toes. In other words, we believe that what we can perceive through our senses are generally reliable.

Why are these points important to apologetics? They’re important for at least two reasons: (1) The general reliability of human sense perception makes defending the Christian faith possible in the first place. It would be impossible to practice apologetics if human sense perception was generally unreliable. (2) The very fact that human sense perception is generally reliable proves the truthfulness of the Christian faith. Apart from the Christian worldview, there is no basis for believing in the reliability of human sense perception because there is no other worldview that grounds intelligible experience in reality as the direct byproduct of man being fashioned in the image of reality’s Creator.[11]

Although non-Christian worldviews may be able to recognize the fact of the general reliability of sense perception, they cannot explain the basis for why man’s senses are generally trustworthy. On the other hand, based on God’s revelation provided in Scripture, the Christian faith provides an external standard to justify why human sense perception is generally reliable. This is a powerful argument that we should be quick to use when seeking to demonstrate Christianity’s intellectual and experiential validity to our unbelieving neighbors.[12]


4. Human Beings Are Sinners in Need of a Savior, But Apologetics Cannot Save Sinners [13]

While this presupposition should provide Christians with a tremendous degree of comfort, it’s also a principle that must be repeatedly drilled into our heads as we defend the faith. The Bible is emphatically clear that salvation is exclusively a gift of God’s grace (Jonah 2:9; Eph. 2:8-9). From an apologetics standpoint, this means that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to bring a spiritually dead sinner to saving faith. It is not our job to produce salvation in our unbelieving interlocutors, for we do not have the power to do so. Regardless of our best efforts, we cannot argue anybody into the kingdom of Heaven.

In the final analysis, it will be impossible to enjoy contentment in our apologetic efforts until we rest in God’s absolute sovereignty over the salvation of men (Rom. 9:14-18). Whereas God is the One who saves sinners, we are those who bring His message of salvation—and the truth of His Word—to those we have opportunities to share with (Rom. 10:14-16). And in accordance with God’s lovingkindness, He is pleased to use apologetics as one of the appointed means to bring sinners to saving faith in Jesus Christ. So while it is not our job to save anybody, we should nevertheless strive for the highest degree of excellence in apologetics because we never know how God might use our efforts to draw unbelievers to Himself. Even our engagements with unbelievers that seem menial can be something that God uses down the road to draw them to faith and repentance. Getting this perspective entrenched into the bones of Christians will inevitably result in liberation from unrealistic expectations about their calling and task to defend the faith.

On this point, there are few summarizations of the basic goal for apologetics more commendable than what Greg Koukl shares in his book, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.

A wise [apologist] “seasons his words.” He weighs his opportunities and adopts an appropriate strategy for each occasion. Sometimes, the simple truth of the cross is all that’s needed. The fruit is ripe for harvesting. Bump it and it falls into your basket. Usually, though, the fruit is not ripe; the nonbeliever is simply not ready. He may not even have begun to think about Christianity in the right way. Dropping a message on him that, from his point of view, is meaningless or simply unbelievable doesn’t accomplish anything. In fact, it may be the worst thing you can do. He rejects a message he doesn’t understand and then he’s harder to reach next time. Now here is my own more modest goal. I want to put a stone in his shoe. All I want to do is give him something worth thinking about. I want him to hobble away on a nugget of truth that annoys him in a good way, something he can’t simply ignore because it continues to poke at him. Whether the opportunity is a short one with a transient audience or a long one with a captive audience, my goal is the same: a stone in the shoe… [With every opportunity for apologetics, ask yourself], “in this circumstance, what is one thing I can say, one question I can ask, one thought I can leave that will get [this person] thinking?” Then, simply try to put a stone in [their] shoe.[14]

Whether we are contending for the hope that is in us with a family member, a co-worker, or a hostile citizen in the public square, our solace resides in recognizing that our calling is not to save sinners. Rather, our calling is to simply put a stone in the unbeliever’s shoe while reflecting Christlike character through our interaction with them (2 Tim. 2:24-26). Only the eternal state will unveil how God was pleased to use seemingly insignificant vignettes of truth to accomplish the salvation of His elect.


5. Apologetics is Necessary to Fulfilling the Great Commission Mandate [15]

The Great Commission mandate is applicable to every follower of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:6-8).[16] Even if one has not been bestowed with the spiritual gift of evangelism, all believers are charged to engage in the task of taking the Gospel—and the full counsel of God’s Word—to every corner of the earth (Acts 13:46-49; 1 Cor. 11:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; 2 Thess. 2:14-15; etc.). What’s more, if we consider what is involved with carrying out the Great Commission mandate, we find that it is inextricably linked to apologetics. How so?

Whereas evangelism entails the sharing of one’s faith with another person, apologetics provides the intellectual basis for believing the faith that is being professed. As soon as the Christian is asked what they believe in reference to their faith, they are immediately launched into offering a defense of their convictions. Consequently, when we go about sharing our faith with unbelievers, we will eventually appeal to objective reasons for embracing what we profess to believe. Even the positive act of explaining the grounds for our ideological commitments is a form of providing an answer for what we believe and why (Jude 1:3). As such, the Great Commission itself demonstrates that evangelism and apologetics function as two sides of the same coin. That is to say, our ability to be faithful to the Great Commission mandate will be largely contingent on our ability to provide an answer for the hope that is within us.

When done correctly, engaging in evangelism will eventually lead one to engage in apologetics, and engaging in apologetics will eventually lead one to engage in evangelism. If we are being faithful to Scripture, we won’t juxtapose or separate one of these disciplines from the other. Greg Bahnsen helpfully articulates the connection between evangelism and apologetics in his publication, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith.

There is no need for God to use our evangelistic witness… or our defense of the faith—but He chooses to do so and He calls us to apply ourselves to them… The Bible directs us to evangelize, even though God could use other means to call sinners to Himself. And the Bible also directs us to defend the faith—not because God would be helpless without us, but because this is one of His ordained means of glorifying Himself and vindicating His truth… [Therefore] the necessity of [evangelism and] apologetics is not a divine necessity: God can surely do His work without us. The necessity of [evangelism and] apologetics is a moral necessity: God has chosen to do His work through us and has called us to it.[17]

As followers of Jesus Christ, may we be found faithful in our calling to proclaim and defend the full counsel of God’s Word for as long as we have life to do so. Praise be to God that He has made apologetics possible for all blood-bought saints!


[1] The content of this article was derived from a lecture manuscript that the author used for an apologetics cohort at Metro East Baptist Church (Wichita, Kansas).

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 515.

[3] See sentences three and five of the Bavinck quote from Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 515.

[4] The apologetic approach depicted in this paragraph has been labeled Evidentialism. Brian Morley provides a lengthy synopsis of Evidentialism on pages 292-350 of Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015).

[5] See sentences 11-13 of the Bavinck quote from Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 515.

[6] For a more thorough commentary on Psalm 19, including a distinction between God’s revelatory purposes in general and special revelation, see Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15 (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 115-18.

[7] As noted by Geerhardus Vos on page five of Natural Theology, trans. Albert Gootjes (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022):

“Negatively, [general revelation] cannot teach believers anything unto salvation that is not contained in Scripture. It does, however, directly teach many things that Scripture does not so explicitly teach as assumed. It teaches us to adore the wisdom of God in nature, His ways and His works (Psalm 104). Natural theology [based on general revelation] owes its position in science to its use in apologetics, for refuting those who have rejected the super-natural revelation of God.”

[8] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 176.

[9] The entirety of Bavinck’s article, and the ability to read Bavinck’s article, demonstrates the certitude of this presupposition. For a more expansive treatment of how human sense perception relates to apologetics, see what the author has written elsewhere: Dewey Dovel, “Evaluating Human Sense Perception Though A Christian Lens,” Covenant Confessions, July 18, 2022, https://covenantconfessions.com/evaluating-human-sense-perception-though-a-christian-lens%ef%bf%bc/.

[10] The author is well aware of the plentitude of scientific and philosophical debates surrounding the reliability of human sense perception, largely due the rise of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” and advancements made in the theory of “Quantum Mechanics.” Nevertheless, the debates surrounding those topics are inconsequential to the crux of this portion of the article. Namely, human sense perception is basically reliable for acquiring and interpreting information in the world of phenomena. For more on the theories of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, see Russell Stannard, Relativity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); John Polkinghorne, Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[11] For a flyover survey of the predominant worldview options that have arisen throughout history, see James N. Anderson, What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

[12] The disputation unpacked in this paragraph is expanded by Greg L. Bahnsen in his treatise, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P. & R. Publishing, 1998):

“As Van Til liked to quip: unbelievers can very well count, but they cannot ‘account for counting.’ When it comes to knowing things, then, the unbeliever is an ‘epistemological’ failure; he has no adequate theory, or philosophy, or worldview that makes his knowing intelligible” (407).

[13]  See sentences 10 and 14-15 of the Bavinck quote from Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 515.

[14] Greg Koukl, “A Stone in His Shoe,” Stand to Reason, February 21, 2023, https://www.str.org/w/a-stone-in-his-shoe.

[15] See sentences seven and eight of the Bavinck quote from Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 515.

[16] The author recognizes the prevalence of debate amongst scholars regarding the extent to which all believers are bound to the Great Commission mandate. However, as noted by D.A. Carson in his contributions to The Great Commission: Evangelicals & The History of World Missions (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2008), the most consistent way of understanding the Great Commission mandate appears to see it as perpetually and universally applicable to the people of God.

[17] Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions For Defending The Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2000), 110-111.

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