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(Presuppositions and Epistemologies)

A man is convinced he is dead. His wife and kids are exasperated. They keep telling him he's not dead. But he continues to insist he's dead.

They try telling him, "Look, you're not dead; you're walking and talking and breathing; how can you be dead?" But he continues to insist he is dead.

Blood dropThe family finally takes him to a doctor. The doctor pulls out some medical books to demonstrate to the man that dead men do not bleed. After some time, the man admits that dead men do not bleed.

The doctor then takes the man's hand and a needle and pokes the end of his finger. The man starts bleeding. He looks at his finger and says, "What do you know? DEAD MEN DO BLEED!"

Presuppositions, Evangelism, and Apologetics

The above story illustrates the strength presuppositions can have. If someone is already convinced of a particular position, presenting contrary evidence can often be futile. The person will often re-interpreted the evidence in light of the presupposition. If this point is forgotten, it can lead to frustration in evangelism and apologetics.(1)

For instance, while living in Denver, Colorado I tried witnessing to a woman who lived in my apartment building. The subject of Christ's resurrection came up. So I proceeded to present evidence for His resurrection.(2)

Eventually, the woman admitted there did seem to be ample evidence to believe in the resurrection. But then she said something that startled me, "But Christ's resurrection only showed the kind of power we would all have if we would just recognize our own inner divinity as Christ did." This was not the conclusion I wanted her to reach!

As it turned out, she was a member of the Mile High Church of Religious Science. And it was according to New Age presuppositions that she interpreted the evidence that I presented.(3)

Another example would be the frustration many Christians have experienced when witnessing to a Jehovah's Witness (JW). It seems no matter how "clear" of evidence is given for say the Deity of Jesus, the JW remains obstinate.(4) He simply cannot admit what to you seems "obvious."

Of course, the above goes both ways. In my dealings with non-Christians, I have probably seemed to be obstinate to them. They offer me evidence that to them "obviously" proves the Christian faith is false; but I continue to cling to my faith.

So the question then is, how can people "stuck" in their presuppositions discuss matters? Before this question can be addressed, the subject of epistemology needs to be discussed.

How Do We Know What We Know?

Theologian Millard J. Erickson defines presuppositions as, "Assumptions that are brought to the process of thought or reasoning."(5) So our presuppositions determine how we think. More technically, our presuppositions determine what our epistemology will be.

Erickson defines epistemology as, "A theory of knowledge or an inquiry into how we gain knowledge."(6) Or, to put it another way, how do we know what we know? What standards do we use to determine what is true or false/ right or wrong?

Different people ascribe to different epistemologies. Although many people may accept more than one epistemology as being reliable, one view is generally considered more fundamental than the other(s).

MicroscopeA few epistemologies will be defined and overviewed:

Empiricism is, "A philosophical theory which holds that all knowledge comes through sensory perception."(7) By seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting truth is determined. Empiricism is the basis for scientific inquiries. It is an epistemology atheists, naturalists, and other "freethinkers" will generally ascribe to. Some Christians would also place a heavy emphasis on empirical studies.

Rationalism is another epistemology "freethinkers" might ascribe to, along with some Christians. It is "the theory that knowledge is gained through reasoning rather than through sense experience."(8) Reasoning means to, "think logically."(9) So adherents of this epistemology believe truth can be attained through following the rules of logic.

Skepticism is, "The doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty."(10) An agnostic would ascribe to this position. An agnostic is, "One who believes that there can be no proof of the existence of God but does not deny the possibility that God exists."(11)

Emotionalism is the name I will give to the next epistemology. An emotionalist is, "One whose conduct, thought, or rhetoric is governed by emotion rather than reason, often as a matter of policy."(12)

An emotionalist will appeal to a subjective, inner feeling for proof of his beliefs. An example would be the Mormon "testimony." A Mormon will "bear his testimony" by declaring, "Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and the Book of Mormon is the Word of God."

The basis for this testimony is the feeling the Mormon received when he prayed about the Book of Mormon as the book directs.(13)

Emotionalism can also be seen in Christian circles. It would be epitomized by the lyrics of the old hymn that declares, "You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart."(14)

Post-modernism is somewhat similar to the above, but goes a step further. Postmodernism is, "a view of the world characterized by a deep distrust of reason, not to mention a disdain for the knowledge Christians believe the Bible provides."

Further, "The postmodern view of truth is that religious truth is never learned from an authoritative or objective source outside of ourselves.. It is created by the worshipper once he or she takes leave of all rational categories and enters the mystical experience."(15) This attitude can be seen among those who are a part of the New Age or human potential movements.

CathedralOrganizational authority is the name I will give to another epistemology. Here the person believes what his authoritative organization tells him to believe.

For instance, I have had Catholics tell me, "I'll believe what the Catholic church tells me to believe." I have even been told by Catholics that they like being Catholic for this very reason. They do not have to struggle over what to believe. Just believe what "the Church" says to believe.

Another example would be JWs and the organization they belong to, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Although JWs will say their beliefs come from the Bible, they are taught that "the way of the truth" is determined through "the guidance of the [Watchtower] organization."(16)

This mindset can be the source of the frustration in witnessing. Even if a verse is "clear" to the Christian, the JW will go back to "the organization" and be told what it "really" means.

Revelation is, "The belief that God has communicated factual information about himself."(17) The Christian and the adherent of any religion which claims it has an "inspired" book or prophet would ascribe to this epistemology.

Epistemologies and the Christian Faith

Two important questions now need to be discussed, First, which of the above epistemologies is correct? Unfortunately, this is a difficult question to answer.

If the empiricist appeals to empiricism to prove empiricism is true, then that is circular reasoning. If he appeals to some other epistemology, say rationalism, then he is contradicting himself. If he thinks empiricism is the ultimate determiner of truth, then rationalism cannot be, so why appeal to it?

Bible with spotted markerIf the revelationist quotes his sacred book to the empiricist, the empiricist doesn't accept it as true unless the revelationist backs up what he says with empirical evidence. But if the revelationist appeals to empirical evidence then he is saying empiricism is more reliable than revelation.

It simply seems impossible to prove one epistemology to an adherent of another.

Second, which of the above epistemologies are compatible with the Christian faith? The Christian faith is incompatible with any epistemology that says knowledge cannot be truly known or is merely subjective. We can know "true truth" as Francis Schaeffer would put it.(18) And this truth is objective. It has, "actual existence or reality."(19)

On the other hand, empiricism can have some place in the Christian worldview. Empirical evidences can be useful in overcoming objections to the Christian faith.

For instance, a claim often made is that the Bible can not be depended on due to textual problems. It is said that because it has been transcribed over and over again so many times that we really don't know what the apostles and prophets originally wrote. But empirical evidence in the form of ancient manuscripts shows the faulty nature of this claim.(20)

So there can be some compatibility between epistemologies; but still, there can only be one ultimate test for truth. For instance, it is God's promise to preserve His Words, not empirical evidence, that gives the Christian ultimate confidence in the textual integrity of the Bible (Psalm 12:6,7; Matt 5:18; 24:35; Luke 16:17).

The atheist would consider appealing to the Bible to uphold the reliability of the Bible to be circular reasoning. The atheist wants empirical evidences. But the Christian should recognize that empiricism can never give absolute and final truth.

Atheists may proudly proclaim they know the truth of something today; but tomorrow, additional discovered evidence may prove today's "truth" to no longer be true. So the Christian sees no reason to constantly alter his beliefs to fit the latest scientific pronouncement.(21)

Moreover, different people can look at the same empirical evidences and draw completely different conclusions. Consider, for instance, the well-publicized O.J. Simpson murder trials:

Almost from the day Simpson was arrested after the celebrated Bronco chase on the freeways of Los Angeles, Gallup polls recorded a substantial and persistent gap between the opinions of white and black Americans concerning Simpson's guilt. A majority of blacks have consistently said that the charges against the former football star were not true, while a majority of whites have consistently said that the charges were true.

In the most recent two polls conducted by Gallup, in April and May [1996], 80% of whites said that the charges were true, and 15% said not true, compared with 34% of blacks who said the charges were true and 58% who said not true.(22)

Both whites and blacks were exposed to the same evidence. So why the disparity? Many answers could be proposed to this question; but in general, whites and blacks have had different life experiences. And these different experiences led them to bring different presuppositions to the O.J. trials.

And this brings us back to the subject of presuppositions.

Basic Presuppositions

God's WordEach of the above epistemologies are outgrowths of basic presuppositions. The basic Christian presupposition is, "He is there and He is not silent" as Francis Schaeffer would put it.(23)

More specifically, the Christian faith presupposes the existence of the God of the Bible and that the Bible is the Word of God.(24) These views would then be further refined with specific doctrines about the nature and attributes of God and the reliability of the Bible.

Basic atheistic presuppositions are: "There are no gods, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world."(25) Further, all events in the universe can be explained via natural forces alone. These presuppositions lead to an implicit trust in the ability of science to find truth.

The agnostic's skepticism prevents him from holding any "dogmatic" position on these matters. Maybe the natural world is all there is; maybe God exists. We simply can not know for sure.

Adherents of other religions and philosophies would have other basic presuppositions. But these examples should suffice to show that these presupposition are often contradictory. Moreover, the most important point to remember about these presuppositions is that they are just that, presuppositions. As such, they can not be proven or disproved.(26)

The Christian believes in the existence of God because the Bible says He exists. The atheist couldn't care less about what the Bible teaches.

The atheist wants empirical evidence for the existence of God. But if he starts with the assumption "There is only our natural world" then no amount of evidence will prove to him the existence of a spiritual Being.

The skeptic says we cannot know if God exists or not. So the Bible's teaching God exists or the atheist claiming only the natural world exists are irrelevant to him. He holds his ground in saying we just can't know.

As regards the Bible, the Christian believes it is not only reliable, but in fact inerrant, which means it is "free from errors."(27) The general reliability of the Bible can be demonstrated empirically.(28) However, empiricism could never prove inerrancy. So the atheist scoffs at the idea and the skeptic is, well, skeptical.

Meanwhile, the Christian and the skeptic do not trust the proud proclamations of the atheist that there is a natural or "scientific" explanation for all that happens in the universe.

These difficulties bring us back to the initial question of how can people "stuck" in their presuppositions discuss matters?

"Think World-viewishly"

Dr. Gordon Lewis, one of my professors at Denver Seminary, used to say that Christians need to "think world-viewishly."

Worldview means, "The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group."(29)

A worldview develops out of a person's presuppositions. The presuppositions themselves, as stated above, cannot be proven or disproved. But by looking at the "overall perspective" of a person's worldview maybe some dialog can begin.

A person's worldview would include a person's epistemology, basic presuppositions, along with all else that he believes. So rather than focusing solely on a specific point in a worldview, look at the worldview as a whole. Then ask a few questions:

First and foremost, how consistent is the worldview? Do the basic presuppositions, epistemology, and other beliefs "fit" together into a logical whole? Are there any contradictions between the various beliefs?

In the Christian faith, one doctrine flows logically from another. Starting with the basic Christian presuppositions about God and the Bible, doctrines such as human nature, sin, and the need for salvation flow in a consistent manner.

Various articles on this Web site present details on this consistency of the Christian faith while looking at inconsistencies in opposing worldviews.(30)

Couple in loveSecond, does the worldview "fit" with the world around us? For instance, the Christian faith teaches people are created in the image of the triune God. This God is inherently love as there has been love occurring between the three Persons of the Godhood throughout eternity. Hence why we are personal beings with an inherent need for love.(31)

But the Bible also teaches the human race is fallen. Hence why we are also capable of great evil. So the Bible's teaching of a triune God and the Fall explain the human capacity for acts of great love, but also acts of great evil.(32)

Third, can a person live consistency with the worldview on a day-by-day basis? Or does he occasionally need to "cheat on his worldview" as Dr. Lewis used to put it?

Lastly, does the worldview provide meaning and purpose in life? Can it hold a person up when his life comes crashing down? The Christian worldview provides all these benefits, and more!(33)

The reader may be able to think of other important questions to ask; but the above should provide a start.


The concepts in this article are rather difficult and probably new to many readers. But talking to someone who holds to a completely differently worldview can also be very difficult, not to mention frustrating!

Hopefully the reader will not meet up with someone who is so obstinate as to insist that dead men do bleed; but, by taking the time to understand the presuppositions and epistemology underlining the other person's beliefs, it will make it easier to understand why he believes what he believes. And this understanding just might lead to a fruitful dialog.

But be prepared, the other person will probably want you to explain what you believe and why you believe it. Hopefully, the ideas presented in this article will be an aid to the reader in thinking through your own beliefs.

Suggested Reading:
Brown, Colin. Miracles and the Critical Mind.
Clark, Gordon. Three Types of Religious Philosophy. Religion, Reason, and Revelation. A Christian View of Men and Things.
McCallum, Dennis. Editor. The Death of Truth.
Pearcey, Nancy and Charles Thaxton. The Soul of Science.
Schaeffer, Francis. The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy. (contains: The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, He Is There and He Is Not Silent).
    How Should We Then Live?

VanTil, Cornelius. Defense of the Faith.
Robbins, John W. Editor. The Trinity Review. For a free subscription to this excellent newsletter, write to:
The Trinity Foundation ~ P.O. Box 68 ~ Unicoi, Tn 37692.

Publications by Gordon Lewis, Ph.D. (Senior Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Philosophy at Denver Seminary):
Testing Christianity's Truth Claims. University Press of America, 1990.
Integrative Theology. Three volumes or one combined volume; Zondervan , 1987, 1990, 1994.
"Francis Schaeffer's Apologetic Method" in Ed. R.W. Ruegsegger. Reflections on Francis Schaeffer. Zondervan, 1986.
"An Integrative Method of Justifying Religious Assertions" Chapter Four in Eds. Newman, Bowman, and Hall, Evangelical Apologetics. Christian Publications, 1996.
Decide for Yourself. InterVarsity Press, 1970.

1) "Apologetics" comes from the Greek word apologia and refers to defending the Christian faith (see 1Peter 3:15).
2) See Has Christ in Fact Risen? and What Actually Happened in 30 AD?.
3) It was with this experience that I recognized the deficiencies of a purely evidential apologetics.
4) For brevity sake, I am generalizing here and throughout this article. When I say, for instance, "the JW" not every JW would be described this way. But I am basing my statements on what I have generally come across. Also, please excuse the use of "masculine" language in this article. But it would have been too tedious to use "he or she" throughout.
5) Millard J. Erickson. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986, p.113.
6) Ibid., p.49.
7) Ibid., p.49.
8) Ibid., p.140.
9) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.
10) Ibid.
11) Ibid.
12) Ibid.
13) Moroni 10:3-5.
14) "He Lives" by Alfred H. Ackley. (c) 1933, 1961 by The Rodeheaver Co. The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration. Waco, TX: Word Music, 1986, hymn #220.
15) Current Thoughts and Trends. January 1997, p.31. Summary of the book The Death of Truth, edited by Dennis McCallum. Italics in original.
16) The Watchtower. January 15, 1983, p.27. Quoted in Randall Watters. Refuting Jehovah's Witnesses. Manhattan Beach, CA: Bethel Ministries, 1987, p.86.
17) Erickson, pp.143-4.
18) Schaeffer, Francis. The God Who Is There. Contained in Complete Works. Vol. I. Westchester, IL: Crossways Books, 1982, p.163.
19) American Heritage Dictionary.
20) See my articles Have Precious Truths Been Lost from the Bible? and Introduction to Textual Criticism.
21) See Science and the Bible.
22) Newport, Frank. May 30, 1996. Gallup's archives.
23) From the title of Schaeffer's third book.
24) There is a heated debate among Christian apologists as to whether the presupposition of the existence of God or the presupposition that the Bible is the Word of God is the more fundamental. For the purposes of this article, I will bypass this debate by combining the two.
25) Anne Nicole Gaylor. President, Freedom from Religion Foundation. From the back cover of an introductory pamphlet for this group.
26) Presuppositions may also be called first principles, starting points, or frames of references.
27) Erickson, p.83.
28) See Is the Bible Reliable?.
29) American Heritage Dictionary.
30) See, for instance, Biblical Portrayal of the God-Human Relationship, Is Your God the God of Isaiah?, Paul in Athens, Acquaint Yourself with God, and Joseph Smith vs. the Book of Mormon.
31) For more on this point see The Relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
32) Schaeffer discusses the idea of the triune God and the Fall explaining the human condition at length throughout his books.
33) See Value of an Intellectual Faith.

See "Dead Men" Correspondence for a follow-up to the above article.

Dead Men Do Bleed! Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter
and was posted on this website in April 1997.

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