The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with John Frame. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics315. Today I am speaking with Dr. John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Frame is a philosopher and a Calvinist theologian, especially noted for his work in epistemology and presuppositional apologetics – also systematic theology and ethics. He is one of the foremost interpreters and critics of the thought of Cornelius Van Til and his publications include Van Til the Theologian, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Medical Ethics, Apologetics to the Glory of God, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought among a number of others.
So today I will be asking Dr. Frame a bit about Presuppositional Apologetics, Doing Apologetics to the Glory of God and ask his advice for Christian apologists. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Dr. Frame.
JF: Happy to be with you Brian and your listeners.
BA: So before we get started, would you mind telling our listeners just a bit about your background and how you got into the field of theology.
JF: Well I was converted to faith in Christ through the ministry of my local church in the Pittsburg area. Came to know the Gospel through the youth ministry and I think God put it into my heart through the music ministry so I have always been interested in worship and church music.
Our church for some reason was often attended by seminary professors and people like that and some have heard of Professor John Gerstner who taught for many years at Pittsburg Theological Seminary and he was a frequent youth speaker in those days. He would speak in Youth rallies and camps and conferences. I became quite fascinated by him and by his students who often spoke to us and almost from the day of my conversion I became very interested in theological problems and theological issues and pursued that interest through high school and college and wound up at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and did some graduate work and at Yale and eventually was called back to Westminster to teach theology and so I have been doing that all my life basically.
BA: Now you have also in addition to your theological studies and pursuits, you are also a teacher of philosophy. So what role do you think philosophy plays in doing apologetics and how can apologists today use it appropriately?
JF: Well philosophy has always been an important kind of background to apologetics, if you look back to people like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Philosophy has always been in the background of what they have presented when they’ve dealt with questions concerning the Christian faith and I have always felt that philosophy is helpful in helping us think clearly, helping us to develop good arguments, strong arguments. Philosophy is a wonderful discipline for training the mind but also of course the opponents of Christianity have often been at their best in philosophical confrontation so if you want to know the strongest arguments against Christianity, you go to the philosophers. You go to the people like Spinoza. People like Nietzsche. People like Kant. And so you get to know the argument against the Gospel in its best formulation, in its most cogent persuasive formulation and so you can counter that in a more effective way than if you have never studied philosophy.
I think there are a great many ways philosophy is helpful for anyone who has studied apologetics.
BA: Alright well as I noted earlier there, one of the focus of your work there has been an analysis and interpretation of the works of Cornelius Van Til. And as I understand, you were a student of Van Til and have carried forward his views on apologetics. So for our listeners can you tell me about your studies under Van Til and what set his thought apart.
JF: Yes. Well when I was in college as an undergraduate at Princeton, Van Til’s writings were very helpful to me as majoring in philosophy and so I had a lot of questions about how philosophy intersected with Christian faith and what a Christian would say if he tries to express his faith in a context of philosophical discussion and I was introduced to Dr. Van Til’s writings at that time and became quite fascinated by them and wanted to study with Van Til himself so when I was done with my undergraduate career, I went to Westminster Seminary where Cornelius Van Til was teaching.
What sets him apart?
Well for one thing among all the apologists of the day, he was probably the best versed on the history of philosophy and the philosophical issues that bore upon Christianity. I suppose that Gordon Clark and Carl Henry were a little bit like that too but I always thought that Van Til had a deeper insight into philosophy than any of them and what Van Til contributed to the philosophical dialogue or to the apologetic dialogue was that Christianity if it is going to present a cogent apologetic, Christianity really has to stand on its own two feet. We can’t assume a worldview that comes from unbelievers.
The Bible has its own worldview. The Bible has its own way of understanding the relationship of things in the world, to the human mind, to God. The Bible has its own way of gaining knowledge and we believe that that is true and we certainly aren’t going to make any progress in apologetics if we assume something less than the truth at the outset. So Van Til told us to presuppose – that’s what Presuppositionalism means essentially – to presuppose the Bible’s own understanding of world and its own understanding of knowledge.
BA: Great well, many of our listeners may either be quite familiar with presuppositional apologetics but probably another half of them are not going to have a clue, so either way could you give a nutshell definition of what presuppositionalism is and how that approach would be fleshed out so to speak?
JF: Sure. Well every system of thought has a starting point, a point that in which they define what is true, what is false, what is right and what is wrong and that varies of course from one philosophy to another, but of course as I said a moment ago, Christians from the Bible, we have our own understanding of what is true and false, right and wrong and how we go about learning what is true and so presuppositional apologetics, it is first of all an apologetic that assumes the Bible’s view of the world. It assumes the Bible’s concept of how to know. Now there are really two things that are absolutely fundamental to presuppositional apologetics.
The first one, since we are creatures of God, the way we know reality is to think God’s thoughts after Him. That is to say, God is the authority for what is right and what is wrong and we need to submit to that authority. Now that’s a proposition that is always true. It was true for Adam and Eve before the Fall. It’s been true in every age since that time.
But then there is a second issue that comes up and that is that the human mind is fallen. Now Genesis 3 shows how Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command with regard to the forbidden fruit and that led to consequences not only for them but also for all their children from generation to generation so that all of us are sinners so what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1 is that apart from God we resist the knowledge of God. We exchange the truth for a lie as he says. We suppress the truth. So that suppression of the truth needs to be dealt with and it can only be dealt with by God’s grace. It can only be dealt with through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ through the Spirit’s work in renewing our hearts so that we will believe what God says and we will want to seek God’s truth in God’s way.
So those are two propositions, one based on creation and one based on the Fall and presuppositional apologetics starts from the Bible, believes that those two things are true and tries to carry out its reasoning in accordance with those. Now both of them lead to the conclusion that we need to think in a way that pleases God. We need to above all to think in a way that agrees with God’s revelation of Himself to us.
BA: What do you think are the main misunderstandings of this approach by its critics? Some people just reject presuppositionalism outright. I am sure you have heard a lot of these criticisms. So my question would be what do you think are the most common misunderstood elements of those criticisms that you would want to correct?
JF: Well. It might be hard to summarize them all but I think the basic thing is that there are a lot of Christians who are not willing to believe that Christianity or the Bible has its own distinctive method of argumentation. A lot of Christians are raised in schools and colleges, where they are led to think that all human beings have the same standards. All human beings think according to logical laws. All human beings think according to their ?? (12:15) experience and that religion doesn’t play any role in our knowledge. And there are Christian, now as I said before, that’s a sign of thinking in a non-Christian way but there are a lot of Christians who are raised that way – raised to think that way who would rather just keep doing as they were taught in college and don’t want to challenge that way of thinking from the Word of God. So I think that’s the main thing. I mean it just looks like presuppositionalism sounds kind of extreme, kind of fanatical, that we would actually go to the Bible to learn how to do philosophy.
It is not very academically respectable. It is very much a minority position even among Christian apologists. A lot of people don’t like to get shunted over in that minority position. They would rather be in a style of philosophy where they will receive more credit from the academic establishment and from their fellow philosophers. So I think we are in a situation where we need to challenge our fellow Christians to be willing to accept criticism. You know be willing to accept marginalization to some extent.
BA: Now in practice, what do you think the main difference would be in the actual way of argumentation? What sort of approach would a presuppositionalist use as opposed to say someone who is more of a classical apologist?
JF: Well there really isn’t as much difference as people sometimes make out. The presuppositionalist would when Christianity is questioned, when he is in an apologetic conversation certainly would bring forth evidences and he will bring forth logical arguments which of course people have always done, whether presuppositionalist or not, but often you know if you are serious about setting forth a really solid intellectual case for Christianity and doing it not only on a popular level but really engaging the philosophers as Van Til himself did, you get to a point where people are going to say, “Ok. You have given me some evidence. You have given me some arguments, but …”
Well let us just say you are talking about the existence of God and you present the argument that you know one thing causes another thing and something causes that cause and something causes that cause and you really can’t go back to infinity. The chain has to stop somewhere. There has to be a first cause and that first cause is God Himself and that’s a very common argument that comes from Thomas Aquinas.
Well you present that argument and for a lot of people that would be sufficient and for a lot of people that would be ok and as far as I am concerned you don’t need to go any further than that as long as people are willing to accept that argument. But if somebody really knows philosophy. Somebody has studied David Hume. Somebody has studied Immanuel Kant, they would say “Well. How can we really be sure that one thing causes another thing? And how can we trace those causes back and back and how do we know that there is a first cause? Why does there have to be a first cause?
Well they ask questions of that kind and then I think a Christian has to point out to the non-Christian, “Look we are operating on a different epistemology from you. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. And we understand knowledge differently from you – that is for us we don’t just go out in the world and use our eyes and our ears and so on to determine what the cause is. Rather we believe that the only way to talk intelligibly about causes is to bring in the Bible, to bring in God as the one who declares what is true and what is false and that is what gives us a more profound view into the causal process and the other kinds of processes which philosophers talk about.
BA: Of course you have written a book called Apologetics to the Glory of God and within there you spell out a lot of this sort of approach, but if someone wanted to get – if you will – up to speed on the presuppositional approach, what sort of books would you direct them to or what resources would be your say your top 3 that spell it out in a clear way?
JF: Well, you know I recommend my own books. I use them in my classes and Apologetics to the Glory of God is sort of the entry volume and then if you want to learn more in depth in a Christian theory of knowledge, then I would recommend my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God which is a bigger book and I have also written a big fat book on Cornelius Van Til. There are others that are very good. Greg Bahnsen wrote a book called Van Til’s Apologetic and there is a book that was recently published. He died young unfortunately and but one of those books that he wrote when he was younger was called presuppositional apologetics and that’s been recently published. There is a lot to be said for that particular book. And then of course Van Til’s own books, there is the pamphlet called Why I believe in God that’s available online in a number of places and then there is Van Til’s book, Christian Apologetics which I think is probably the best entry way into his distinctive approach and then there is oh you know like ten, twenty other books that he wrote.
BA: We talked about some of the misunderstandings that are common about the presuppositional approach but one of the things I hear often would be that presuppositionalists are just arguing in a circle. How do you know that God exists? Well the Bible tells me so and its sort of put into that simplistic small circle and sort of pitched out the window right off the bat, because “Hey you are arguing in a circle.” So where is that criticism coming from and how would you respond to it?
JF: Well at one level and in one sense I would plead guilty because when you are talking about an ultimate standard of truth and falsehood and right and wrong, the only thing you can do is to argue in a kind of circle.
“Here I am as a Christian. I believe that God is the standard of truth and falsity and right and wrong.” So if somebody asks me why I believe the Bible ultimately I have got to appeal to God or at least my answer has to be consistent with belief in God – belief in the Christian God. So in a way I am presupposing God in order to prove God but when you think about it, everybody is in that same position. If I am a rationalist, let us say and I believe that human reason is the final standard of proof then how am I going to prove that if I ask this person “How can you prove that human reason is the final standard of truth?”
Well the only thing he can do is to offer me a rational argument. He has to appeal to reason in order to establish reason. See for him there is nothing higher than reason. There is nothing higher than reason that will prove reason so he has to appeal to reason to establish reason.
With a Muslim, he believes that the Koran is the final standard of truth. Why does he believe that? Well because the Koran says so, so he has to appeal to the Koran in order to prove the Koran. If somebody believes that the human senses like our sight and ears and so on are the final standard of truth. Well he has to prove that by appealing to his eyes and to his ears.
This is a dilemma that is not distinctive to Christianity. In fact it isn’t even distinctive to presuppositionalism. It is present in any kind of human thought. All human thought has a starting point or presupposition and we have to use that presupposition in proving or defending the presupposition. Now that’s the first thing that has to be said.
The second thing that has to be said is that we don’t spend all of our time constructing circular arguments you know. We don’t say if somebody comes up and says “Well why do you believe the Bible?” We don’t normally say “The Bible is true because the Bible is true.” I think there is a certain legitimacy in that actually. But we say the Bible is true because the Bible claims to be true because its claims are supported by archaeology because there is a consistency within the Bible. It’s amazing that you have all these authors writing in different times and places and yet they agree in presenting a common message, so we bring all of these evidences to bear. Now these evidences of course we believe are consistent with Scripture.
So in a way the Bible is testing, even argues of evidences, so it is still circular, but it is not a narrow circle, it’s a broad circle. We are bringing facts into the discussion. We are bringing evidences into the discussion and that’s what makes the argument more persuasive. The more facts, the more evidences, the more relationships between the facts, the more those things can be brought out and understood, the better the argument will be. And of course that’s true of non-Christian arguments as well. They are all circular at one level, but they bring in facts to broaden out the circle to make their positions more plausible, more cogent.
BA: Would you say that reason is a tool that you would use to arrive at your starting point so to speak? Like how did you get onto the circle in a sense? I am struggling to understand just how you would say that that would be a starting point – maybe an arrived at starting point so to speak, “Hey I have arrived at this approach to Apologetics based upon reason so how could the Bible have been my starting point?” You know what I am saying?
JF: Yeah. I think of reason not as a starting point or a kind of premise that we use to go further. I think of reason as a tool that God has given us. He has given us a lot of tools, a lot of equipment by which we know the world. Our eyes, our ears – all of our senses, our brains and reason which is kind of an ability to understand when statements are consistent with one another and to understand what arguments are valid and sound and so reason is a very important thing. We use reason all the time and certainly we use reason in apologetics but reason functions very differently in different philosophies.
In the rationalist tradition, reason is a kind of ultimate. Reason is sort of self-attesting. You believe reason because reason says so. In the empiricist tradition in philosophy, the philosophers teach the truth through the senses and reason then is a tool to arrange the data that comes through the senses. So reason functions differently in different types of philosophy. Now in Christianity, reason is a tool that is based on God’s revelation of Himself. Without that revelation, reason wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. Reason has to start somewhere. Reason has to have standards and criteria to apply to determine what’s true and what’s false. It doesn’t just operate by itself, so and you have to make a choice at the beginning you know.
Does reason begin with God’s revelation or does reason function autonomously? Does it begin without God’s revelation? And there you just have to make a choice. Now you are asking how do we get into the presuppositional circle. Is it just an arbitrary leap and the answer is no. It is a work of God primarily. Presuppositionalism is usually found in Calvinistic circles in which the emphasis is on God’s grace. It’s God’s grace that enables you to believe. It’s God’s grace that takes away your desire to suppress the truth. And it is God’s grace that enables you to reason based on the revelation that God has given both in the world and in Scriptures. And what happens is that as you are reasoning on the basis of Scripture, then you start to sense, you start to recognize. Your mind falls into a groove where the Biblical way of thinking makes sense to you and from a human standpoint we might call that reasoning, but from God’s standpoint, He might call that regeneration, the new birth, change in the hearts so that we will see things the way they ought to be.
BA: I would definitely agree on the point of wanting to reject autonomous reason, not submitting to God, you know. I think that would be the core element. Well I think that’s helpful for our listeners so now one of the things you mentioned was the use of evidence. The other question would be how does evidence play a role in a presuppositional approach?
JF: Well. That’s one of the criticisms of presuppositionalism that presuppositionalists aren’t interested in evidence and of course that is not true. Van Til, Bahnsen and myself and all of us who write in the fashion, we all say evidence is good, evidence is important. Indeed the Westminster Confession talks about how there are evidences abundantly that show that the Scriptures are the Word of God. Of course we believe that God is sovereign, so that everything in the world bears testimony to Him. “The Heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament shows His handiwork.” So every fact in the world constitutes evidence for God and again just as we were talking about with regard to reason, there are good and bad ways to make use of evidence.
If somebody says “Well I don’t need the Scriptures. I don’t need presuppositions. I will just go and look at the evidence.” meaning I will just look at the bare facts which I can interpret on my own. I can interpret them autonomously regardless of what God essentially says about them. I think that would be a wrong thing to do.
Now some apologists down through the years have taken this approach with the unbeliever. They will say to him “Well. I understand. You don’t believe the Bible. So I won’t assume that the Bible is true. I will just come to you with evidence and we can just interpret that according to our own reason without taking God into account, without taking the Bible into account. We will just reason on our own basis, on our own intellect. And I think that is very wrong for a number of reasons, but the main reason is it misleads the non-Christian as to what Christian thinking is all about.
Christian thinking is never done autonomously. We are told to – whether we eat or drink, whatever we do, do all things to the glory of God and thinking is one of them and using evidences is one of them. And so we try to use evidence in a way that recognizes that God is the creator of every fact and the most important thing about every fact is the fact that God has created it and God continues to exercise His providence over it.
Often you know we can say the same things that non-presuppositionalist say. You know somebody comes up to me and says “Well. You know I would really like to become a Christian but I just have a hard time believing in the resurrection of Jesus.” Well I would take him first of all to 1 Corinthians 15 and we would go over those resurrection appearances, the witnesses to the resurrection. Paul says that five hundred people saw it at once. It implies that those people could give testimony and so I would use the same evidences for the resurrection that we would find in the non-presuppositional chap.
Now if the inquirer says, “Oh. Well. That’s all I wanted to know. That shows me that Jesus is raised from the dead and so I want to worship Him. I want to be a Christian.” That’s fine. I wouldn’t say anything about presuppositions at that point. I would say “Look. Let’s talk about this and hope that soon you can be baptized and join the Church. That’s wonderful.” I wouldn’t think that there is anything wrong with that.
But if the non-believer comes and says, “Well. I can’t believe all of these evidences in 1 Corinthians 15 because I believe with David Hume that it is impossible to have enough evidence for a miracle. Supernatural events – you can’t possibly have enough testimony to establish a miracle.”
Now if he says something like that then we have to talk not about the evidences but about the various knowledge. We have to talk about the place of testimony in human knowledge. And we have to talk about the importance of reasoning not just as an autonomous empiricist like David Hume, but reasoning in a way that gives due regard to the kind of testimony that is presented in 1 Corinthians 15. So we all deal with evidence and that is a good thing but at some points the presuppositionalists will have to deal with evidence in a different way from those who deny presuppositionalism.
BA: Another question along the lines of presuppositionalism and then I want to ask your input on a few other things but in doing apologetics as you put it, to the glory of God, does the non-presuppositionalist. Do you think that they do damage to the Gospel or do you think that they are doing apologetics say not to the glory of God? So I suppose what I am saying here is could it come across to some that if one doesn’t argue presuppositionally then this doesn’t glorify God.
JF: Yes. When I came up with that title to my book, it was just an expression. I wasn’t trying to put anybody else down and say that somebody else doesn’t do apologetics to the glory of God. It was just an expression of mine own theological priorities and what I meant to say by that title is that however we do apologetics, however we formulate our system of knowledge, evidences, of presuppositions and all of that, our highest goal ought to be to glorify God and of course I was confessing that that was my goal at this point.
So now is it possible that ones’ apologetics method can enhance or detract from the clarity of the Gospel? I think probably yes, if we give the impression to people that they just go on thinking the way they have thought as an unbeliever, they can become a Christian and go on thinking like an unbeliever, I don’t think they have adequately understood the lordship of Jesus Christ. Christ’s Lordship is over our thinking. It is over every aspect of human life and so part of the Gospel is that people need to receive Jesus as Lord and as Savior from sin.
So I think that unless you present Christ as Lord of the intellect as well as Lord of everything else, you are presenting something less than the Gospel as it is set forth in the Scriptures. Now you know that doesn’t mean that the person who receives Christ under the work of a non-Presuppositionalist isn’t saved. He may very well be but like all of us he will come into the Christian faith misunderstanding some things. None of us get it all right all at once. But I think that there is a clarity in the presuppositional apologetic that says, when you accept Christ you accept Him as Lord over all. You accept Him as Lord of everything in your life and then the other side of it is, that you receive God’s grace, that you realize that you can’t do anything to save yourself and that means you can’t do any works to save yourself and it also means you don’t have the wisdom, you don’t have the have the knowledge, you don’t have the intellect to save yourself either.
The truth that leads to salvation comes by the grace of God just as salvation itself comes from the grace of God. That’s Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God and that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. The two are headed in opposite directions and so if you are going to receive the Gospel, you need to receive it by the wisdom of God. Imagine who could have thought up the idea that we could just be saved from our guilt and saved from our sins by somebody dying on the cross two thousand years ago. I mean nobody would have thought that up autonomously. Nobody would have thought well that’s a good idea. Let us make a religion based on that. If that is true it comes from God. It comes from God’s revelation and only from God’s revelation. So we just better get used to thinking God’s thoughts after Him from the very beginning of the Christian life.
BA: Well. I think that’s helpful. Now you teach at Reformed Theological Seminary and your lectures on apologetics, they can be found on iTunes in the RTS online so for the people who are listening it is a great resource and I would want to point them to that to get a fuller understanding of you know, your apologetic approach. Now that said as a teacher of apologetics, what advice would you want to give to the next generation of Christian apologists?
JF: Well. Of course number one, I think we need to go back to the Bible again and again to see what God says is relevant to our thinking or philosophizing or reasoning and the way we present the Gospel to people who inquire, of course 1 Peter 3:15, sort of the theme of my Apologetics to the Glory of God but there is certainly a lot more in the Bible that God has to say to us with regard to reasoning and with regard to presenting the Gospel to people who have questions and thence. Beyond that I think we need to investigate the world that God has made for more evidences, for more arguments that makes the truth clear and again there is nothing wrong with seeking evidences in a presuppositional context in fact I am hoping that my successors among presuppositional apologists – I am 71 so I am not going to quietly do this, but I wish other presuppositional apologists would get together and come up with a kind of encyclopedia of the evidences in the Christian faith and show how they can be used and show how cogent they are and how it makes a difference to treat them in a presuppositional way.
Further I think that – I hope that the next generation will not be so preoccupied with method as we have been and I get the impression that today among presuppositionalists and I am criticizing my own movement here and I am criticizing myself as well. We spend so much time arguing against the opponents of presuppositionalism. We haven’t done enough of what the apologetics is really for. We should be arguing with non-Christians not arguing with other Christians about apologetics method.
There is a certain amount of that that has to be done but I think we need to get back to really dealing with non-Christian thought. Van Til certainly did that with Philosophy and other movements. We need to deal with every aspect of Philosophy, Religion and culture that is contrary to the Gospel and that is what we can do best for the Kingdom of God if we have such a great method of apologetics then we need to show that it bears fruit.
BA: Well Dr. Frame, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. It has been a real pleasure.
JF: Well thank you Brian it has been a real pleasure.