Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Aug 2013

Presuppositional Apologetics in a Non-Western Setting


Last week I had the distinct pleasure of teaching the presuppositional approach to apologetics to a group of believers in Tanzania, most of whom had no more than an elementary education. More challenging to my goal than any deficiency of education, however, was a Traditional African worldview that was totally foreign to my Western sensibilities. Permit me to explain.

In an oversimplified nutshell, the presuppositional approach is to:

  • Discover points of contact in an unbelieving culture where unbelievers have borrowed illegitimately from the Christian worldview.
  • Mount an internal critique of the unbeliever’s whole worldview, exposing its illogic, inconsistencies, and its general inability to establish preconditions of intelligibility (transcendentals) that account for all of life.
  • Invite the unbeliever to explore the Christian worldview, embrace its unassailable presupposition (that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has revealed himself inerrantly in the Protestant canon), and adopt the whole biblical worldview as the only valid response to Peter’s question, “What kind of people, then, ought you to be?” (2 Pet 3:11).

Usually, the whipping boy of the presuppositionalist model is evidentialism, and specifically, naturalistic evidentialism. The evidential approach allows the unbeliever to retain his scientific presuppositions but insists that the right use of reason will ultimately prove rather than disprove the Bible’s message. The presuppositionalist denies that such an approach can ever work because of depravity, and dismisses evidentialism as a glaring instance of indulging the native preference of some for “wisdom” over the “power of God” (1 Cor 1:22ff).

In Africa Traditional Religion, however, unbelievers generally put little to no stock in “wisdom.” They swiftly dismiss naturalism, evolution, and uniformitarian principles as laughable, and subordinate whatever laws of science that they recognize to supernatural forces like witches, departed ancestors, and other invisible beings. Here the evidential approach is nonsensical. Instead, the sub-Saharan African (like the Jew in 1 Cor 1­–2) wants a miraculous sign—a supernatural force that is experimentally more spectacular, more exciting, and more powerful than the local spirits and deities.

So what is the apologist to do? Well, one could opt for fideism or some other existential approach to apologetics (a wildly popular approach among Pentecostals and other Charismatic Christians in Africa). But in point of fact, there is one approach that works just as effectively in sub-Saharan Africa as it does in the ivory towers of Western academia—the presuppositionalist approach. It works because it vests warrant neither in wisdom nor in signs, but in the power of God—the regenerating power of the Spirit in conjunction with the Word to overwhelm the penchant of believers everywhere to exchange the truth of God for a lie, no matter what lie that might be.

The best apologist has never been the one with the most wisdom or the most spectacular signs, but the one who most thoroughly understands the systematic theology of the Christian religion—the one who knows his Bible the best and depends most self-consciously on the power of God as a more effective, indeed the only effective, means of penetrating the darkened mind and leading men out of darkness into his glorious light.

5 Responses

  1. Indeed, that was a splendid review. I’d still like to hear how you actually taught the material. If you’re inclined, do a couple of follow ups to flesh out your overall teaching.

  2. Amazing to think that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation and that what has been provided in scripture is sufficient for evangelism (among all things).

    Glad you shared it and are encouraging people to read the bible, believe it, and teach it.

  3. Jon Hall

    I’m very intrigued to hear further as Fred requested. It’s so easy to through facts that “prove” the Bible out there, but that doesn’t bring people to faith. I’ve become convinced that it’s not our job to “convince” someone of the truth, but to simply declare the truth of scripture. We are NOT the Holy Spirit!

  4. Mark,

    Great article – I might only add one more thought to your last paragraph. You say the best approach is one that has the highest appreciation for a systematic theology, the Bible, and God’s power vis-à-vis “charismatic experientialism or evidentialism, etc….” (Tetreau paraphrase). The only other thing I would add is that the best apologist is the one that also has the highest understanding of the person of Christ – both in knowledge and to some degree “experience.” I suppose you would include the “knowledge” part of this to a Christological part of theology. You might include the “experience” to the observable power of God’s Word on those who receive it’s ministry. There is a subjective/experiential side to God’s power via the word and even via the ongoing comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Still – your article was fantastic – I’ll be headed back to Africa for ministry in the future and so I appreciate the way you compare and contrast the African setting with our own. Straight Ahead! jt