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Defining Our Terms

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Last week, we began a series on presuppositional apologetics. I promised that this series would be helpful without relying the technical jargon that seems to complicate and bog down much of the current books and papers that are written on the subject. Without realizing it, I committed this very offense within the first two paragraphs of last week’s article. I took for granted that most readers know what “presuppositional” and “apologetics” actually mean, both by themselves and when they are linked together as in the first sentence of this week’s article. To make sure we are all on the same page with our terms then, this week I will define what I mean when I use these words.

One of the main problems in dealing with any complex issue is the number of misconceptions that surround the topic. Individuals on both sides have a notion in their head of what is meant by certain words and phrases and quite often these two “notions” are radically different. What ends up happening is that these two individuals “talk past” each other. They use the same terms, but in dissimilar ways. This is why almost every topic or issue that you can research will have some sort of “jargon” or peculiar language that is unique to it. While this jargon is meant to cut down on confusion and misunderstandings, it is only useful if it is used properly and consistently. Words are only placeholders for definitions and when an individual (or group of individuals) uses a word in a way that is different from the original definition, the word itself becomes meaningless. In logic this is known as equivocation. When we equivocate, we alter the meaning of words (i.e. the definition) to suit our own agenda, instead of using words in their proper context.

Now why is this important to the discussion at hand? Simply put, too much equivocation has taken place for too long in the study of apologetics. This, of course, begs the question: What exactly is an apologetic? As we briefly summarized last week, an apology is simply an answer. It comes from the Greek word apologia which is most famously used in 1 Peter 3:15. Our modern understanding and usage of the word “apology” is decidedly negative. It implies accepting responsibility for a wrong, orasking forgiveness. In other words, the person giving the “apology” today is answering for their actions in an attempt to make amends, or restore themselves in the eyes of the offended party. This idea, however, is foreign to the original meaning of “apology[1]”. An apology as originally understood was a positive affirmation. Rather than being a sheepish plea for forgiveness, it was a bold statement of reason. While the modern sense of the word implies unthinking or possibly selfish acts committed in negligence, the original understanding was intensely thoughtful and calculated. One could only give an “apology” because they had thought deeply and rationalized their actions with their beliefs. The study notes on 1 Peter 3:15 in the 1599 Geneva Bible neatly sum up the original understanding:

He will have us, when we are afflicted for righteousness sake, to be careful not for redeeming of our life, either with denying or renouncing the truth, or with like violence, or any such means: but rather to give an account of our faith boldly, and yet with a meek spirit, and full of godly reverence, that the enemies may not have anything justly to object, but may rather be ashamed of themselves.

In other words, an “apology” was meant to put the hearer on the defensive, which is exactly the opposite of the modern definition. We have equivocated the meaning of the word. For the purposes of the study at hand, whenever the word apology or apologetic is used it is meant in this original, affirmative sense.

Second, we should define what we mean by presuppositional. A lot of confusion exists on what is actually meant by the term, but when we use it here it simply means “assumption” or “unstated belief.” A presupposition is a starting point, a place for thinking to begin. Most people have many presuppositions about many different topics that are, quite often, contradictory. We will get into this more as the series continues, but suffice it for now to say that a presupposition is, as we discussed last week, the statement that lies behind the question. It is the individual’s core belief or beliefs that serve as the foundation for all of their thinking.

Now that we have defined the words separately we need to put them together to define the compound term that will be used quite often throughout this series. Presuppositional apologetics means a “biblical defense of the Christian faith.” It is taking Peter’s command to “be ready with an answer” seriously. A presuppositional apologist is one who thinks God’s thought after Him. He is one who understands that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). He begins his apologetic—his answer that accounts for the hope that is in him—with the Bible itself. The Bible is his presupposition, his starting point, and his apologetic flows from it, not to it. He begins the very same place the Bible itself begins: “In the beginning, God...” He recognizes that if God is, as the Bible claims, the dread sovereign and creator of the universe, man will try in vain to comprehend and make sense of his own place in the world without beginning his thinking at the very same place. “The Lord knows the thoughts of man; he knows that they are futile” (Psalm 94:11).

This is not to say that the presuppositional apologist shuts his eyes to the world around him though. Quite the opposite, in fact. More on this in the weeks to come. 

Apology: 1533, "defense, justification," from L.L. apologia, from Gk. apologia "a speech in defense," from apologeisthai "to speak in one's defense," from apologos "an account, story," from apo- "from, off" (see apo-) + logos "speech." The original Eng. sense of "self-justification" yielded a meaning "frank expression of regret for wrong done," first recorded 1594, but it was not the main sense until 18c. The old sense tends to emerge in Latin form apologia (first attested 1784), especially since J.H. Newman's "Apologia pro Vita Sua"(1864). The Gk. equivalent of apologize (1725 in the modern sense of "acknowledge and express regret"), apologizesthai, meant simply "to give an account." (From the Online Etymology Dictionary)


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