Tag Archives: Greg Bahnsen

Friends You Should Meet (5) — Greg Bahnsen

It’s no secret that I love books.  Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends.  In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones.  I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses.  The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a greater grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.

Discovering the writings of Cornelius Van Til was a turning point in my spiritual and theological development.  However, as I mentioned earlier, Van Til was not a popularizer.  Moreover, his writings on apologetics didn’t include a lot of biblical exegesis and explicit scriptural support.  There were a number of students of Van Til who were better communicators.  John Frame is certainly one of those.  However, the best of Van Til’s students was without question Greg Bahnsen.

Dr. Greg Bahnsen was a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  I believe he was the first (the only?) student to do his M.Div. and M.Th. concurrently at that institution.  He later went on to do doctoral studies at the University of Southern California.  He was an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Bahnsen also founded the Southern California Center for Christian Studies (SCCCS, now defunct).  He was the author of several books, numerous articles, and a frequent lecturer, speaker, and debater.  He died suddenly in 1995 from complications following open heart surgery.

Why is Greg Bahnsen important? He was a gifted, charismatic communicator.  He was the rare man with great intellect, quick on his feet, and passionate for truth.  But most of all, Greg Bahnsen held the Word of God in the highest esteem and sought to consistently apply it to every area of life, including apologetics.

Where do I start? Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is Bahnsen’s most accessible book on apologetics.  It’s written at a level that I think most high school graduates should be able to manage it.  One of the best features of this book is how it displays clearly the biblical basis of Reformed (presuppositional) apologetics.  The next step up would be Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and DefendedYou can find my review of that one here.  His magnum opus is without doubt Van Til’s Apologetic.  VTA is a massive volume of anthologized writings of Van Til with commentary and footnotes from Greg Bahnsen.  Everyone serious about apologetics needs to have this work.  Finally, I should mention that a lot of Bahnsen’s articles are available for free on-line.  You can find them here.

What to look out for? Bahnsen was at his best when writing and lecturing about apologetics.  Unfortunately, when it came to ethics he was a theonomist.  That means he believed that the Mosaic civil laws were binding upon contemporary magistrates.  I’m not going to give a comprehensive critique of theonomy here, I’m just telling you that this is where he stood.  Related to that, he was also postmillennial in his eschatology.  Notwithstanding those points, Greg Bahnsen was a minister in good standing in the OPC.

I never actually got to meet Greg Bahnsen, though I wish I had.  A few months before he died, we’d had a helpful e-mail conversation.  He was very willing to help this university undergrad in far-off Alberta.  Later I enrolled in the Master of Arts in apologetics program at SCCCS — unfortunately I didn’t finish it.  Nevertheless, I count Bahnsen among my mentors and teachers when it comes to defending the faith.  I remember the first time listening to his 1985 debate with Gordon Stein — I was blown away.  That brought together everything I had learned from Van Til and him.  To this day I still often use that debate when teaching apologetics.  It’s a classic which you can find here.  To this day, I don’t think there’s anybody who can rightfully be described as a successor of Greg Bahnsen.  His shoes are BIG.

Book Review: Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended

Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, Greg L. Bahnsen (ed. Joel McDurmon), Powder Springs: American Vision Press, 2008.  Hardcover, 296 pages, $34.95 USD.

It was early December 1995, the early years of the Internet.  Along with many others, I was prayerfully following the developments in a hospital in southern California.  A well-known Orthodox Presbyterian pastor by the name of Dr. Greg Bahnsen had heart surgery on December 5.  Soon afterwards life-threatening complications set in.  Colleagues sent out regular e-mails keeping everyone informed of what was happening.  Then, on December 11, we received the news that Dr. Bahnsen had been promoted to glory.  He was only forty-seven years old.  In life, he had been a prodigious author of books and articles, scholarly and popular.  However, it has only been since his death that we have seen the publication of his important works in the field of apologetics.  The volume under review is described by the editor as being Bahnsen’s magnum opus, his greatest work.

The book has a curious story behind it.  It seems that Bahnsen wrote this volume back in the 1970s and it somehow ended up being lost.  After his death, as his office was being cleaned out, an envelope was discovered behind one of his filing cabinets.  In that envelope was the manuscript for this book.  Thus it happens that we receive a brand “new” book from Bahnsen long after his departure.

Presuppositional Apologetics has two parts.  In the first, Bahnsen makes the positive case for Reformed presuppositional apologetics.  After an initial overview, he develops the contours first of all from Scripture.  The third chapter is more philosophically oriented, though Bahnsen would say that the argumentative considerations here are “functionally equivalent to the viewpoint of God’s Word or applications of its teachings that bear on knowledge, truth, etc.” (36).  In the second part, Bahnsen critiques the apologetics of three other figures who have sometimes been described as presuppositionalists:  Gordon H. Clark, Edward J. Carnell, and Francis Schaeffer.  While finding some elements of genuine commonality with Reformed presuppositionalism, Bahnsen argues that these men fail to consistently build their apologetics on the solid ground of God’s Word.  He summarizes his critique:  “All three men fail to be presuppositional in their argumentative method, and the presuppositions they do utilize during the course of their defense are not biblical…They have two final authorities: reason and the Bible; of the two, reason plays the paramount role…Where Scripture is introduced at the beginning of an argument it is presented merely as a hypothesis to be verified” (268).

In my view, the two major strengths of this work are its detailed presentation of the Scriptural foundation for presuppositional apologetics and the extensive critique of Clark, Carnell and Schaeffer.  However, the book also has some weaknesses.  There seems to be an inordinate amount of repetition.  It could have been more tightly written and I suspect that the older and more mature Bahnsen would have written it and edited it differently.  Also, there are a number of obvious typos remaining in the text and other editorial infelicities.  There is also the fact that this volume was written in the 1970s and so Bahnsen is interacting with figures who dominated apologetics in a previous generation.  At a certain point, Bahnsen brings in Antony Flew’s refutation of Schaeffer (258-259).  Of course, it would be unreasonable for us to expect Bahnsen to comment on this, but the editor might have noted Flew’s eventual abandonment of atheism and whether or not that changes the equation.  Finally, some of the existing editorial notes are…well…odd.  For instance, Bahnsen critiques Carnell for his “Christian hedonism,” noting that this is a “sorry phrase” (229).  However, in a footnote, the editor then extols Bahnsen for being “way ahead of his time,” in coming up with this phrase before John Piper, although the editor admits that Piper was using it in a different (positive) sense (230).

Presuppositional Apologetics would be a good introduction to the subject for someone with some philosophical and theological training.  It’s an intermediate- to advanced-level book on the subject.  It could be used for a seminary course or an advanced Bible college course.  Is it Bahnsen’s magnum opus?  No, I’m not convinced that it is.  I think that accolade still belongs to his monumental Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis (P&R, 1998).

Inerrancy and Rationalism

A few days back, my colleague Bill DeJong wrote the following observation in the meta of a previous post:

“The term “inerrancy” seems inherently tied to a rationalistic, positivistic, precisionistic worldview and therefore plays into the hands of higher criticism.”

The key word there, I think, is inherently.  Is inerrancy inherently rationalistic and all those other nasty things?  A couple of related thoughts come to mind.

I’ve heard the same thing said about apologetics.  Reformed folks only aware of the evidentialist or classical schools of apologetics might be led to conclude that apologetics is inherently rationalistic and tied to positivism and precisionism, etc.  If they were speaking only about those schools, they would be right.  However, to tar apologetics as a whole as rationalistic neglects the fact that there is at least one school of apologetics that may not be fairly characterized in that way.

The second thought is related because Greg Bahnsen was both a proponent of that non-rationalistic school of apologetics and a proponent and defender of inerrancy.  Bahnsen regularly and vociferously assailed rationalism in Christian philosophy, apologetics, and theology.  Similarly, he went after Edward J. Carnell’s rationalistic formulation of inerrancy.  For instance, in Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, Bahnsen took issue with Carnell’s proposal to subject Scripture to critical analysis and rationally work towards the conclusion of inerrancy:

…[W]hen Carnell views the doctrine of Scripture’s inerrancy to be an inference that must be based on empirical investigation and inductive authentication, we can clearly see what it is that has highest epistemic certainty for him. (205)

Along with Bahnsen, I categorically reject that kind of an approach to inerrancy and I agree with my colleague Bill that this indeed emerges from a rationalistic, positivistic, etc. corruption of the Christian worldview.  Bill is exactly right that this plays into the hands of higher criticism.  It happened with Carnell.  Higher critics couldn’t figure out why Carnell didn’t just join them:

The outcome of Carnell’s favorable attitude to the thought of such unorthodox men as Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Brightman, and Niebuhr was his failure to present a solid challenge to liberal thinking in general.  William Hordern felt that Carnell’s method of verifying Christianity like a broad hypothesis in the tradition of the scientific method was the same as liberalism’s procedure.  L.H. DeWolf thought it odd that Carnell would, with his endorsement of testing all putative revelations, reject the method of higher criticism.  (233-234)

However, together with Bahnsen, Young and other Reformed stalwarts past and present, I don’t think Carnell’s unsatisfactory version of inerrancy requires us to dispense with inerrancy altogether.  A wrong formulation of a doctrine doesn’t necessarily mean that one throws out the doctrine — instead, we strive for a more correct and biblically faithful formulation.  Isn’t that exactly what has happened in the history of theology with doctrines like, say, the Trinity?

Bahnsen: Our Starting Point

I’m currently reading Greg Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended.  I hope to have a full review here later this week.  In the second chapter, Bahnsen develops his case for presuppositional apologetics out of Scripture.  He eventually comes to Abraham in Genesis 22 and the case of Job.  Bahnsen concludes:

From Abraham and Job we learn not to question the Word of the Lord.  His veracity needs no defense, for His Word is true in virtue of its being His Word.  We define Scripture as truth, therefore, or presuppose its authority; this is not the conclusion of an independent line of thought but the starting point of all our reasoning…

The Word of God demands that the apologist presuppose the veracity and authority of Scripture…

…[T]he apologist brings the absolute claim of God upon His creature to bear on the unbeliever, judging the unbeliever’s thoughts by the Word of God, which is never doubted as to its truthfulness and authority.  He is willing to view any man who contradicts God’s Word as a liar rather than ever beginning to entertain the notion that God could be untrue.  Scripture is our absolutely foundational standard of thinking and evaluation.  The person who departs from the authoritative Word of God is the one who needs a defense, not the believer who humbly submits to the Word of the Lord as unassailable!  (59)