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I’m a presuppositionalist—and so are you. I use circular reasoning almost every time I think, debate or converse with someone else—and so do you. Although we like to believe that we are unbiased observers of life, we are all guilty of believing that what we believe to be true about the world is “the truth.” Disagreements begin when individuals cannot reconcile their core beliefs—their basic assumptions about how the world works—with the core beliefs of others. In other words, behind every disagreement there is a basic assumption, or set of assumptions, that is driving the controversy. As much as we would like to claim “neutrality,” it is a product of wishful thinking, not reality.
I had a wise ninth-grade biology teacher who had a whole arsenal of pre-packaged responses to the onslaught of naïve ninth-grade wisdom that he had heard over the years. When I was a ninth-grader, his responses to our questions seemed more like put-offs than real answers, but looking back I realize the true value of what he was doing. One of his witticisms has stuck with me all these years. When a classmate would ask a particularly involved or pointed question, my ninth-grade teacher would ask in return: “What is the statement behind your question?” Put another way, my teacher would force the student to think about what core assumption—what unstated belief—was actually the foundation for their question. This is a powerful tool that too few today understand. I surely didn’t appreciate the value of his tactic when I was a ninth-grader. Only now, more than twenty years later, am I finally able to grasp what he was trying to do. I’m not sure if Mr. Greenawalt was a Christian or not, but he certainly understood the implications of presuppositions on our thinking. And this question is at the very heart of what we as Christians are commanded in the oft cited but seldom understood imperative of 1 Peter 3:15: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed and do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:14-16).
Alfred North Whitehead has memorably said that all of western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. What Whitehead was saying is that the whole of western civilization is simply re-hashing and restating the thoughts and conclusions of a thinker who lived 2500 years ago. In his first epistle, Peter is commending the same ideal to the Christian. In this passage, Peter is not saying that Christians are to have exhaustive knowledge of every area of life so that when an unsuspecting skeptic crosses your path you can slice and dice him with your intellectual wit and wisdom. In fact, the apostle Paul himself desired to know nothing but “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Peter and Paul both understood that while apologetics can get messy, the core of any successful response begins with Christ. Christ is to Christianity what Plato is to western philosophy. Christians often get side-tracked and overwhelmed during encounters with questioning skeptics. Peter reminds us that we are to: 1) expect such situations and 2) be ready with an answer. Entire apologetic systems have been built and constructed by academics with far bigger brains and theological knowledge than I can ever hope to attain, but it seems clear to me that Peter is happy enough for his readers to have a testimony ready when you are called to task for your faith. That is, having a “reason” for why you live the way you do. Engaging in endless evidence-swapping and case-building is not what Peter has in mind. This is not to say that these things are not important, they are. But they will only follow from a consistent “apologetic” which is rooted in obedience and trust of the One who defined obedience and trust.
This short article serves as the introduction to a larger series that we will embark on in the new year: a practical examination of presuppositional apologetics without using fifteen-syllable words. While facts and figures are important and relevant to be able to build a stronger case for the Christian worldview, we need to remember that every apologetic begins with the ninth-grade question, “What is the statement behind your question?”