I have often heard it that I am just as beholden to my presuppositions as anyone else is to theirs. A particular brand of Christian thought called “presuppositional apologetics” supposes that you just have to accept certain foundational ideas (presuppositions) and then build from there. You may have heard some of the big names in presuppositional apologetics without ever having heard the term. RC Sproul is certainly the most famous living example, and he is a very influential figure (I find this unfortunate). Most recently, I heard a presuppositional-style argument crop up in the discussion of one of Peter Enns‘ Facebook posts. The suggestion there was that the belief that the Bible is not infallible is just as binding to one person as the belief that it is infallible is binding to someone else.
Presuppositionalism is weird and involves lots of intentional circular reasoning. Fortunately, its critiques dissolve fairly quickly under examination. Let’s suppose that your friend is trying to convince you that unicorns exist. You say no, but he tells you that you’re just too committed to the idea that unicorns don’t exist. Well, if you wanted to say affirmatively that unicorns don’t exist, you’d face a pretty big problem. In order to prove they don’t exist, you would need to see everything in the universe, and then you’d need to see that there are, in fact, no unicorns. Bear in mind that you would have to see everywhere all at once, because unicorns are sneaky and could be hiding wherever you aren’t looking. Having done that, you could say to your friends that you have proven that unicorns don’t exist.
That’s a bit impractical. I certainly do not have an all-seeing machine to confirm the non-existence of unicorns. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. Why, then, do I not believe in unicorns if I cannot disprove them?
The answer is simple: I have no reason to believe in unicorns. I’ve never seen one, never seen a picture of one (though the image to the right is fairly convincing), nor have I known anyone who has credibly suggested that they exist. If some evidence came along to suggest the existence of unicorns, I might start considering it a possibility. Until then, unicorns exist in a category along with other things that I have no reason to believe exist, like goblins, elves, and meaningful political alternatives in America’s two-party system.
So let’s make a big distinction here which highlights the philosophical mistake presuppositionalists make. For any belief — we’ll call this belief “B” — the statement “B is false” is dramatically different from the statement “I have no reason to believe B.” Proving B is false is often a difficult if not impossible task.
With that in mind, when someone says to me that I am a slave to my presuppositions about the Bible, such as that it is not infallible, they are making this mistake: I have not asserted anything about the Bible, whereas they have. I am not saying, “The Bible is not infallible!” I just don’t have any reason to believe it just yet.
Functionally, these are about the same. I truly do believe that the Bible is not infallible, but that’s not something I can assert with 100% confidence, nor do I need to. There has to be some reason for me to accept the claim before I ever need to believe it. The presuppositionalist may say it is a revealed truth. Alright, why should I believe that? I’m not asserting that I have proven it is false, I just see no reason to accept it.
This is the distortion inherent to presuppositionalists’ defenses of their system of thought. Although it may sound like something of an abstract point, getting past this ideological hurdle could be key in allowing many people to examine the nature of their beliefs. Honestly, so many beliefs slip in under the radar under the guise of something you just have to accept unquestioningly, thanks in large part to the philosophical sleight of hand presuppositionalists rely on to support their views. The lack of belief in an infallible Bible is not a presupposition as some apologists claim in excusing themselves; it is the lack of a presupposition.
Also, now you have the image of a man with a unicorn head stuck in your brain. Be sure to send it to your friends so that you can have others to share your misery.