Subjectivism and Presuppositionalism
By Joshua Whipps1

Discovering Presuppositionalism
On the circuitous route I took toward presuppositionalism, the most momentous stop, I think, was where I examined the foundations typically used to posit a subjective view of truth. In the process of learning to repudiate this philosophy, I found that practically everywhere I looked I encountered the idea that what was true for me may or may not be true for someone else. While I’m not sure who or what it was I was arguing against that led me to study it, I’m fairly sure it was wrapped up with a reference to Michael Martin, a prominent atheistic philosopher. I discussed a bit of what Martin was saying with my father, and he pulled a book off the shelf for me: A Christian Manifesto by Francis Schaeffer.
Schaeffer was my introduction to presuppositional apologetics, although I didn’t yet know what it was. I did know that it made sense. He knew what he saw, and it was accurate. I do admit, I was quite enamored with Schaeffer from that point on, and read a large portion of his works. I distinctly remember encountering Dr. James White’s Ministry (Alpha and Omega Ministries)2 a short time thereafter. I also had a rude awakening as to the sad state of my own Biblical knowledge. It was a humbling experience, but resulted in a much deeper understanding of what it truly was I was defending – not as an intellectual exercise, but as a deeply serious proclamation of truth over and against error. I’ve always had a bit of a passion for contesting subjectivism, but from that point forward, it was a personal stalking horse. I find it a completely inconsistent system of thought, and it’s truly amazing how deeply rooted it has become in western society.
In my experience, one of the most wonderful things that presuppositional apologetics has taught me is the certainty of a secure foundation, over and against the shifting sands that most of modern thought rests upon. I’ve also found it quite an encouragement how much of the Scriptures speak to how we should think, and what we should think about. It’s not something that most mainstream churches teach about. Sadly, those who do, teach their people to think how the world thinks! Both Schaeffer and another student of Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, pointed out this fundamental dichotomy of thought, showing in their disparate ways that modern man has succumbed to this disease of thought. I call it a disease intentionally. Subjectivism’s effect on our minds has all the hallmarks of a disease. When all references to a moral standard are considered solely from the standpoint of the opinion of the subject, this leads to a wholly illogical system of truth. It is a distinctly prideful system, contrasted with relativism. Relativism is cultural, primarily – although it can also have experiential overtones. Subjectivism, however, is a personally prideful sort of relativism. It insists that one’s own perspective is the only perspective binding upon oneself. This sort of thinking can lead only to self-absorption. This self-absorption can only be harmful. It corrupts, it weakens, and it infects additional hosts.
When we encounter examples of this disease, I have found nothing to be more helpful in the defense of Christian truth than a properly grounded presuppositional methodology. For those who may be new to this methodology, it says, in a nutshell, that things may only be properly understood in the framework of God’s inspired revelation as the sole foundation for truth. That we cannot reason *to* God – but that all knowledge, to be proper knowledge, has to be founded in the truth of God’s Word. That may sound rather obvious – but if you compare that approach to how most popular apologists go about things, you may be surprised! Presuppositionalism is not a popular approach. In fact, I have yet to encounter the person who does not react rather… violently… to the opposition of their subjective philosophies by those means. However, we aren’t interested in being popular. Our interest as Christians is in the truth of God.
Both Bahnsen and Schaeffer hit upon a very key point in encouraging the Christian to think God’s thought after Him – and in a correct balance. Schaeffer’s emphasis was upon speaking the truth in love. (Eph 4:15) We cannot be arrogant as we speak the truth; and we cannot compromise the truth as we love God and others. Bahnsen’s emphasis was similar, but used a slightly different terminology. He counseled us to “humble boldness.” Using Proverbs 15:32-33, and supporting it from passages all over Scripture, he counsels us to be bold in the proclamation of the truth, yet humble, knowing that the wisdom he proclaims is not his own! Humility, because our knowledge comes from God – boldness, because we are to be speaking the words of God. We must not be arrogant in our proclamation of the truth, but humble. We must not be hard-hearted in our proclamation of the truth, but do so in love. We must not compromise the truth by a false appeal to being “loving” or “tolerant.” And we must not fail to proclaim the truth boldly in the name of a false humility that does not serve Christ faithfully. There is a correct balance that must be reached and kept in the forefront of all of our interactions.
When we fail to keep that humble boldness – or fail to speak the truth in love – we fail as apologists. We fail to speak the truth, or we fail to speak lovingly. We fail to be bold in the proclamation of His truth, or we fail to be humble in the proclamation of it. When we concede the truth of God’s word in the name of love, or when we fail to speak that truth lovingly – we are failing to keep a proper balance. When you are speaking to an unbeliever, who is mired in subjectivism, we cannot assume the truth of their worldview, as so many do. We also cannot beat them over the head with their own folly in order that we may win.

Paul’s Exhortation
Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1 is “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. [I pray that] the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:17, NAS, emphasis mine). I’m constantly amazed at the depth of wisdom Paul shares in this epistle. Notice two things; First, that this spirit of wisdom and revelation is of grace alone – “may give to you”. Second, that it is given “in the knowledge of Him”. Further, “that you will know what is the hope of His calling.” His thesis in this passage is the supremacy of Christ over all things. Is this not true, as well, of our thinking?
I encountered a man asking for advice the other morning. The night before I saw him, I was preparing a lesson on church history by reading a contrast of Ignatius’ epistle to the Ephesians and Paul’s epistle. One thing I noted was the object of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, in Chapter 1: “…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.”
The man’s question was how to handle a situation in his home church. His church leadership and their teaching was decidedly anti-intellectual, and they taught that the Bible is useful, but fallible. So his church was adhering to subjectivism in a religious format; that the Bible is only authoritative for certain kinds of truths, that men can continue receiving revelation, and so on. He knew that this is wrong, but wasn’t sure how to handle it.
The first thing I pointed out to him was the centrality of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. That first, they might receive a spirit of wisdom and revelation in knowledge of Him, and second, that they might know the hope of His calling. What I noticed at that point was how Paul assumed that he should demonstrate the folly of the Ephesians’ view – by a pragmatic appeal. While we are obviously cognizant of the fact that presuppositionalism is quite practical in execution, the appeal is not to the practicality of Scripture – but to the truthfulness of it. When you think of truth, do you think about in terms of yourself? What you recognize as true? Or, do you think about truth in terms of what God’s Word says? For, it is in Christ, that is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge!” (Col 2:3)
As we talked, I suggested that perhaps his approach should be to demonstrate the importance Paul sets upon the dichotomy – the antithesis – between truth and lies, especially through Ephesians. Paul’s source of truth is God, and His revelation; it is not his accumulated knowledge from study of natural philosophy, literature, or anything of the sort. Paul’s prayer is specific – and it is that they would grow in something specific as well. The knowledge of Him! That they know the hope of His calling! It’s not that they are lacking in love – that foundational principle is secure. His prayer is for the balance of that principle. His prayer is for the increase of their wisdom and knowledge. Note: Not just any knowledge or wisdom – but wisdom and knowledge in Him. He goes from that point to a remarkable presentation of the Gospel and its purpose in Ephesians 2. In Ephesians 3, Paul gives a description of the means by which God inspires Scripture, and his special task as an apostolic preacher. If you notice, as you read it, Paul’s concern is that “…the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church,” (v. 10). He then reiterates his prayer for the Ephesians, “…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (emphasis mine). Quite a prayer! No wonder that he continues – “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen!”
Then we arrive to Ephesians 4. “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all {aspects} into Him who is the head, {even} Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in {the likeness of} God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Eph 4:14-24, emphasis mine)
Notice the words in italics. The trickery of men is deceitful. It is a lie, and exchanged for the truth, as Romans 1 tells us. It is balanced, as maturity must be – truth with love. That balance brings growth of the whole body in love. Therefore, we ought not to walk in futility of mind; which brings only darkness to our understanding, and sin to our lives. We did not learn Christ that way – we were taught the truth, which is in Christ alone. We must lay aside that old self, futile and darkened, and be renewed in the spirit of our minds; which is set apart to the truth. I love the phrase “holiness of the truth.” It is quite remarkable. Truth is holy, and set apart to God. When we deal with truth presuppositionally, we set it apart as being holy; sanctified to God, and we are in fact referring to the standard that only God can provide us through His Word, as the self-existent Creator. When we appeal to other things, to somehow “prove” that God exists – we are, in effect, denying that God is the only source of “flaming truth”, as Schaeffer calls it.3 Of “true truth” that has, as it’s ultimate source, the Word of God.
When we examine the subjective philosophy of truth, we see the antithesis of the Scriptural philosophy above. Instead of every conception of truth relating objectively, fixedly to a single reference point, we have every conception being solely self-referential. “The subject doesn’t belong to the world, but it is a limit of the world,” as Wittgenstein puts it4. In a very significant manner, a faulty approach to apologetic ministry can fall into this self-same trap. When the world insists that we must “prove” God’s existence, goodness, morality, faithfulness, omniscience, omnipotence, or any other thing they demand – they are demanding that we give up our own position. This is often couched as a plea for “neutrality” in thinking – or for “tolerance”! What an admission of this viewpoint’s validity demands, however, is that a Christian actually start from the viewpoint of the unbeliever. We have mentioned “antithesis” several times thus far. There is an obvious problem with an antithesis – there is no middle ground, no neutral ground between the two viewpoints. Any idea which tries to present a “no man’s land” between the two viewpoints inherently denies the truth that all ground is God’s ground. This is not neutrality. It is surrender. When we deny that God’s truth is objective, universally applicable, and is the only truth – the only way – and the only life that there is, we not only deny the truth we are professing to defend, but in fact, give up before we begin. Is that any sort of proper defense? There is, however, a defense we are told to assume – to take up. The full armor of God.

Putting on the Full Armor
We come to the end of Paul’s instruction in chapter 6. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:10-20)
First, we’re told once to put on the armor of God. Next, we’re told to take it up. Why? In order to use it. Armor is heavy, and not easily put on. It is your protection, meant to keep you alive in battle. What should this tell us? We can’t just put it on, and lean on a tree on the outskirts of the battle, watching. This isn’t something we are meant to be a spectator of. We are meant to stand, in the place we are assigned. Not to run to the place of our choosing, or from the battle in cowardice. Foolhardiness and cowardice are equally admonished by this statement.
Second, what matters is the whole armor, not simply parts. If you skip a piece of armor, that’s where your enemy will target you. If you leave your head exposed, you leave it open to attack. For instance; the helmet is further explained as the helmet of the hope of salvation, in 1Th 5:8. Wasn’t Paul’s prayer earlier that they would know the hope of His calling? I remember being puzzled as younger man why the head was protected by the helmet of salvation. When looking at the companion verse, I’m no longer confused. Recall that in 1 Pe 3:15, we are called 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.” Do you see the themes we’ve been discussing, here? The defense is of that hope. What is that hope? Something we know. On what basis do we do so? On the basis of what we are given! How are we to do so? With “gentleness and reverence”. The root for “gentleness” here is the word Christ uses for “gentle”, in the Beatitudes. “Reverence” is the same word Paul uses in Romans 3:18 when he quotes Psalm 36:1; “THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.” What is the beginning of wisdom? The fear of the Lord. Recall Proverbs 15:33. “The fear of the LORD is the instruction for wisdom, And before honor {comes} humility.” This only serves to underscore the importance of what we’re speaking of. Humble boldness, as well as truth in love, are the essence of a scriptural apologetic.
Third, the intention is not to fight a retreat, or to rout the enemy by the skill of our own right arms. It is to stand firm. The word “stand” is repeated three times. We are placed where we are for God’s purposeful effect, and for His glory. Not our own.
Fourth, we are to gird our loins with truth. Now, that’s a bit of an odd reference for modern folks. But girding up is to ensure that you aren’t encumbered by loose clothing. It is to “tighten up,” (Heb. 12:1). What do we accomplish this through? Truth. The very wording used to encourage us in such removal of encumbrance prohibits any view where truth is something loose, or varying. Paul’s point would be destroyed if truth were something entirely conventional. So girding up excises that which will hinder us. It tucks in all the loose ends, so to speak. You might also notice that this is the first thing Paul mentions about the whole armor. It is foundational to everything else. You cannot, for instance, put on a breastplate if you aren’t girded. If you aren’t girded, the breastplate will not fit. It will not sit where it is supposed to, and it won’t protect how it’s supposed to protect. It will be cumbersome, and it will not be of use. Further, how are you supposed to practice righteousness – if you don’t know what it is?
Fifth, given that we are to stand, what is it that enables us to do so, with sure footing so that our foot does not “slip in due time”? The preparation referred to means “sure footing” in the Septuagint. We are shod (?)(Eph 6:15) with the sure footing of the Gospel of peace. Nahum 1 refers to the fact that the one who brings the gospel of peace stands on the mountains, and that the evil one cannot pass him. Isaiah refers to the one who brings good news, and announces the gospel of peace (Is. 52:7). Romans refers to the one who preaches the gospel, and brings tidings of peace (Rom 10:15). The one who stands is the one that is sure-footed in the Gospel.
Sixth, notice that the shield of faith is the overarching defense; “over all.” Faith, as we know, comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. It’s no mistake that this comes after the depiction of the sure-footed gospel; how will they hear without a preacher? So, we often concentrate on the Sword, which will be mentioned shortly. However, the Word is just as integral to our footing and to our defense! It is with this shield of faith that the darts of the wicked will be quenched. It is impervious to them, and as long as we use it for the purpose for which it is intended, we will be, as well.
Seventh, as we mentioned earlier, we are called to put on the helmet of salvation. I Thessalonians calls it the helmet of the hope of salvation. As apologists, we are to give an answer for the hope that is within us (I Peter 3:15-16). It is this very hope that is part of our armor and our answer. It is not an accident that what protects our heads is the hope of our salvation. It is not mere imagery. Scripture has an intention, which we must search avidly for. It has a truth which we cannot deny.
Eighth, we are to take up the Sword of the Spirit. This is not nebulous, nor is it left undefined. Paul explicitly defines it for us. Our weapon is the Word of God. There is an obvious parallel to Hebrews 4:12 here, where the Word of God is living, active, “sharper than any two-edged sword.” A sword, as his audience would well know, can parry as well as strike – and it is the primary weapon of the infantryman. Further, it is connected to the next verse (v.18) where we pray in the Spirit. We pray His words back to Him. We are to meditate on His Word day and night. We are to pray without ceasing, for ourselves and for others. “Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, as Paul says earlier in Ephesians. (4:3) In essence, we have the very picture of the presuppositional method. All of the armor is taken from Scripture, and it is in the might of God that we stand. We have the firm foundation from which to assail the subjectivistic position, and the wherewithal to resist counterattacks.
This, in a slightly more condensed form, was my advice to the fellow mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the person(s) he spoke to were decidedly disinterested in the authority of Scripture. He was rebuffed, and has since left the church after explaining why he was doing so in Scriptural, yet loving terms.
Sometime later, a similar question came up in conversation with another man. He was relating an experience he had with someone who insisted that to say Scripture was free of contradiction was a result of human reasoning. The context for this claim was that Reformed doctrine causes Scripture to contradict itself, especially in differentiating the inward and outward calls of the Spirit. He made the point that “it would seem that the great commission offers the
chance to all.” I’m still not sure, because we didn’t have a very involved conversation, whether he would affirm that the fact that Scripture does not contradict itself is a product of human reasoning or not. However, this led us into an examination of what Scripture says about itself, and about God.
Scripture says God does not change (Ps 55:9), the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35), and that every word of God is tested (Pro 30:5). In fact, the Word itself is truth. And if the Word is truth, then contradiction would result in opposing truths. This is nonsensical. If Scripture is a singular truth, you cannot also have multiple, oppositional truths. Since there are no objects that have a sum of precisely identical properties, be they material or qualitative, there cannot be a violation of the law of non-contradiction. Not due to human reasoning, but due to the laws God has built into His own creation, and sustains by the Word of His power. In other words, there is nothing in existence that is not under the authority and creative sovereignty of God.
So, when we examine subjectivism, how shall we do so? I firmly believe that the most devastating critique of subjectivism is from presuppositional apologetics. When we examine the world’s various systems of thought, they all boil down to autonomous human reasoning, just as Schaeffer points out in his works. Therefore, what is the only answer? To internally critique subjectivism within it’s own system, and to externally critique it, by way of contrast, from the Christian system, and it’s adamantine certainty grounded in God and Scripture.
Subjectivism is not always as obvious as it appears. When someone claims to be objective, they often do not mean objective in the same manner we do. They mean that they are impartial. Let us be honest, however. No person on the face of the earth is impartial. Their understanding of every fact they encounter is colored, and interpreted by, the prism of their own epistemology. How they think they know things will determine how they view all else. When it comes down to it, there are only two possibilities in epistemology. We know things on the basis of ourselves, or on the basis of faith in the authority of someone else. In the former, we are forced to subjectivism, and thus to futility. In the latter, we are simply pushing the question back. However, there is a subset of this authoritative view that is, in fact, valid. If your fixed reference point for all knowledge and all truth is the self-existent, omniscient, omnipotent and sovereign God who created all things; you are justified in that belief, and have a firm foundation for everything else, given that what you think is actually based upon that foundation. In opposition to an apologetic which “gives away the store” by casting away bits of armor we are commanded to take up, presuppositionalism contains the truth of God’s Word in balanced opposition to the falsity of the world. This is the proper response to subjective philosophy, and the most devastating critique of it.