Presupposing a Thing or Two
Our presuppositions shape how we view the world, and can make the views of others incomprehensible. As I have argued previously, in the realm of politics one’s presuppositions are crucial, and difficult to shift; which is why politics tends to be so tribal. It is also why highly intelligent people can end up making political arguments that are no more rational than the arguments of a fervent sports fan about his favourite team.
As presuppositions are so important, communicating the gospel always requires recognizing what presuppositions are in play. Probably the two most oft-cited biblical examples of this are Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 and Paul’s Areopagus sermon in Acts 17. In both cases it is interesting to observe the way in which the apostles both play to and cut against the presuppositions of their audience. Peter goes with the grain of the Jews in Jerusalem by quoting from OT scripture and showing how it ties into the story he has to tell. But he cuts against the grain by then claiming that Jesus is the Messiah. In similar fashion, Paul goes with the Athenian presupposition of the existence of god, but then clashes with them spectacularly by claiming there is one God, who has made himself known through the man Jesus, who was dead but is now alive.
Both these cases illustrate the importance of contextualisation and conflict when seeking to change someone’s mind. In order to gain a hearing it is necessary to contextualise, and this means it is necessary to understand the presuppositions that are in play. But while necessary, contextualisation isn’t in itself sufficient to the aim of persuading someone to change their thinking – inevitably this requires conflict as one presupposition is compared with another.
It is not difficult to see how this observation applies to the numerous ethical issues that 21st century western Christians are likely to find themselves debating with their non-believing friends. For example, our presuppositions about marriage and sexuality are likely to be different from many other people in our society; as are our presuppositions about when life begins, or how it should end; or our presuppositions about the exclusive claims of Christ.
If we are to have any hope of changing minds – of (and in the end this is what it must all be about, which is my ultimate presupposition!) making disciples - then just shouting our presuppositions will not be effective. Like the street preacher I saw recently yelling into empty space in a crowded street, we will be simply drowned out, and dismissed as cranks. But if we are so concerned with contextualisation and nuance that we fail to ever clearly spell out what our presuppositions are, and why we consider them to be superior to others, we will be rendered impotent and irrelevant – just a bunch of do-gooders rather than those transformed by “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
When Paul spoke to the Areopagus some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again about this.” (Acts 17:32) If Paul had used only conflict he would have been mocked and refused a hearing from the Athenians. If he had only contextualised he would not have been mocked, but there would have been nothing more for the Athenians to hear, or respond to. It would have been an empty message.
Each of us is likely to have an inbuilt bias towards either contextualisation or conflict. But here’s the thing: We need to do both – and that’s what I call a presupposition!