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Modified Presuppositional Apologetics: A Proven Apologetic Method for Evangelizing in a Skeptical World

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In Evangelism in a Skeptical World, Sam Chan combines the theological and biblical insights of classic evangelistic training with the latest insights from missiology, illustrating his insights with real-world examples drawn from over fifteen years of evangelistic ministry.

9780310534679Recently, Christianity Today awarded it a 2019 Book Award for apologetics/evangelism. Winfried Corduan, professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Taylor University, said this of Chan’s new manual for evangelism:

For every generation, or maybe even every decade, a book comes out that will become a standard reference for evangelism and apologetics. This book has the potential to become the leading manual for Christians engaged in outreach for many years to come. Chan discusses a wide set of issues ranging from the theology of evangelism to how to give evangelistic talks to the place of apologetics in evangelism, all geared to the mindset of our contemporary culture.

Below we spotlight Chan's thinking on “modified presuppositional apologetics,” a proven approach Chan has used to bringing people to the point of belief. We survey this approach below. Keep reading to learn a powerful method for making the unbelievable news about Jesus more believable in our skeptical world. (Note: Chan credits Timothy Keller's writing and preaching as an important model of this approach, especially in his books The Reason for God and Making Sense of God.)

What Is Modified Presuppositional Apologetics?

Chan places modified presuppositional apologetics in context of two dominant approaches to apologetics:  presuppositionalism argues “we should simply assume Christian presuppositions and start from there. Our method should be to present the gospel and pray for the Spirit to do his work” (253). A counterpoint (evidentialism) insists evidence will compel people to believe: “if the Spirit does his supernatural work,” this thinking goes, "why can he not also work through the natural means of our presentation of the evidence and the Christian worldview?” (253)

The modified presuppositional apologetics method modifies these popular alternatives. On the one hand, Chan begins “with the assumption that presenting evidence alone will typically not be very effective” because “the other person probably does not share my presuppositions” (254). On the other, he argues “there is a valid place for using reason, arguments, logic, facts, evidence, and data in our evangelism” (254).

Chan approaches modified presuppositional apologetics in three steps: resonate, dismantle, gospel. Chan explains each of these three steps using this scenario: “Now let’s say a friend says to me, ‘I can’t become a Christian. Not if it means all that stuff in the Bible that says homosexuality is wrong. How can a loving God not accept people just for who they are?’ What do we say in response?” (255)

What do we say in response? Keep reading to understand how to resonate, dismantle, and gospel (yes, I used gospel as a verb!) with this issue and others.

Step 1: Resonate with their presuppositions

The first step in the modified presuppositional apologetics method is to show that we’ve heard, understood, and empathized with their objections. And here’s an important distinction in this approach: “Until we feel the same emotions they feel, we haven’t really heard their objections” (255). When it comes to Chan’s case study on homosexuality, he offers several questions of resonance:

Why do they think it ought to be okay for someone to be gay? What presuppositions—not so much the evidence—must they hold to come to this conclusion? How does it fit their cultural storyline? What is so emotionally compelling about their point of view? What is so morally repugnant and offensive about Christianity? (255)

Chan goes on to pinpoint several aspects of the non-Christian answer, including: the issue of equal rights and freedom “to pursue happiness on their own terms” (256), the bedrock of the modern Western Enlightenment; love and community, where the non-Christian thinks, “If you’re loving someone in the privacy of your own home and no one is getting hurt, who am I to tell you what to do?” (256); tolerance and acceptance, where “many people believe that if we shouldn’t discriminate against people of different skin colors and genders, why should we discriminate against people of different sexual identities?” (256).

You may not agree with the person's conclusions, but that’s not the point—understanding and empathy is. “We have to feel the sheer horror of how a Christian worldview feels to our non-Christian friend . . . If you can resonate in this way, you show that you are someone worth listening to” (256). Only then are you ready to dismantle their worldview.

Step 2: Dismantle their presuppositions

After mirroring back to our friend the presuppositions of their own worldview, now it’s time to dismantle them in two ways.

One way is to gently expose a deficiency in their presuppositions. Chan explains that often people adopt presuppositions on face value as being true, without any sort of evidence. “In this sense, their beliefs are faith-based beliefs that may not accord with the evidence” (257), and it is up to us to expose this reality. We can also reveal a dissonance with their presuppositions. Chan calls this the “you can’t have it both ways” method: ”There is something else that they hold to be true which clashes with this presupposition. So they can’t both be true. Our friend has to give one of them up” (257).

Chan offers a few examples to illustrate. Here is one:

So where do we get our views on freedom, love, and rights? They are not so self-evident to many people today. What proof do we have of their existence? Where would we even find this proof? And how would we even prove the existence of metaphysical concepts such as freedom, love, and rights if all we are is physical atoms and molecules? (257)

In this act of dismantling, Chan is “trying to show how Western the common view sounds. Because most people we interact with in the West have been brought up with Western principles, they can’t see how Western they are” (257). From there, he is able to offer an alternative worldview to Western Enlightenment: the gospel.

Step 3: Gospel their presuppositions with a replacement

After raising objections and deconstructing the presuppositions of their worldview, now we are ready to offer a replacement, in two ways: replace the demonstrated deficiencies with the gospel; and replace the dissonated points of their worldview with the gospel. Continuing the case study of engaging the presuppositions surrounding homosexuality, Chan offers this:

We might say to them, “Where you and I differ, actually, isn’t in our view on gays. Where you and I differ is where we think we derive freedom, human rights, and love from.” We would then explain to them that freedom, human rights, and love—as the concepts we’ve come to love and celebrate in Western culture—actually come to us from the Bible. Before we dismiss the Bible, we have to realize how much of what we hold to be true—which isn’t as self-evident as we think it to be—actually comes to us from its pages. (258–259)

As examples, he lists (259) several Western beliefs that have their origin in the Bible:

  • The notion of inherent rights
  • The origin of our rights
  • The insistence that husbands love their wives
  • The importance of personal, individual decisions over the collective

“All that we’re trying to do,” explains Chan, “is open up their mind to consider leaving aside some of the prejudices we might have against Christianity and consider reading the Bible on its own terms” (259).

The goal is to offer people the opportunity to investigate the claims of the Bible for themselves, seeing if it can be an objective basis for our knowledge, love, and truth.

***

While the content of evangelism is changeless, the methods of evangelism change precisely because our world changes. In today's skeptical world, Chan recommends we try the approach of modifed presuppositional apologetics above. Chan presents it in greater detail in his book Evangelism in a Skeptical World.

Field-tested and filled with fresh and creative insights, the award-winning Evangelism in a Skeptical World equips ministry leaders, students, and everyday Christians to share the gospel in today’s skeptical world. Not only does it lay a sturdy foundation in a theology of evangelism, it will help you craft gospel presentations, reach our emerging postmodern world, use evangelism in different contexts, and give a variety of evangelistic talks. 

9780310534679Explore Chan’s book today to discover ways to adapt evangelism to our changing world and make the unbelievable news about Jesus more believable.

You may also like these posts on Chan’s book:

What is Evangelism?

12 Ways Evangelism Is Changing

10 Reasons Why People Reject the Gospel

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