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Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, by Greg L. Bahnsen

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Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, by Greg L. Bahnsen |

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Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen (1948–1995) provided perhaps the clearest, most faithful, and most powerful advancement of Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics of anyone. This statement holds true both for Bahnsen’s written scholarly work as well as his practical applications in both formal and informal debates and exchanges. Those knowledgeable of Van Til’s “Copernican Revolution” in Christian apologetical method will understand the enormity of this compliment to Greg Bahnsen. Those not formerly introduced to Van Til or Bahnsen will understand shortly after beginning this volume. Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended presents the clearest, most systematic, and most rigorous statement and defense of Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics written to date.

This volume presents the systematic counterpart to Bahnsen’s earlier publication, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis . . . .

What Was Lost Now Is Found

Besides the importance, rigor, and quality of this work, the book also has an amazing story behind it. Bahnsen originally began this work only to fill two chapters in a collaborative effort, The Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, edited by Gary North in 1976. Bahnsen—as by all accounts he was wont to do—continued adding and revising the work. It outgrew the scope useful for the book, with the side effect of beginning to delay the publication. The publisher gave Greg an ultimatum: either submit his two articles within two weeks, or he would use another author (who had already submitted!) for the chapters. Greg complied, but at the necessary expense of setting aside the much lengthier and more detailed work he had already begun. Within two weeks Bahnsen supplied almost a hundred pages that became chapters 10 and 11—still necessary reading today!—in North’s phenomenal display of Van Til’s influence and importance.

Meanwhile, Bahnsen periodically returned to the “chapters” he originally began, which now approached a self-sustaining treatise. Over time he continued adding and revising, and at some point had the work typeset as a preliminary step for publication. When he received the “galley proofs” (20”-long typeset pages used for author’s review and editing), Greg continued revising towards what clearly promised to be his magnum opus—a work which contained a clear and thorough positive statement of the presuppositional method as well as a comparison of that method against other allegedly “presuppositional” systems and a defense against other non-presuppositional critics and rivals.

At this point, the most unexpected—and unfortunate—turn of events occurred. For some reason, unknown to everyone close to Bahnsen, the galleys were lost. Lost, as in disappeared. . . . Whatever happened, the galleys vanished into the mists of a life in transition and remained lost until Bahnsen’s untimely passing in 1995.

Only by the amazing grace of God did that which was lost get found. After Bahnsen’s death—about sixteen years after his masterpiece-in-progress disappeared—the effort of cleaning out his offices solved the great mystery. The long-lost galleys and attendant materials—which Greg had apparently sealed in an envelope and mailed to his California office from Jackson, MS—had fallen behind one of thirty filing cabinets bulging with Bahnsen’s written, received, and clipped materials. . . .

I am so thankful and proud to be included in resurrecting this impressive work. Why our Lord delayed it and preserved it until now for publication He alone knows; but what was lost for thirty years, now is found. To help bring the clearest, most rigorous statement and defense of presuppositional apologetics—from perhaps Van Til’s most gifted disciple—brings American Vision and Covenant Media Foundation a great joy and sense of fulfillment.

About the Contents

To begin a few brief explanatory notes about this edition of Bahnsen’s opus I should note firstly that we have not included the entire contents in this first volume. We have good reasons for this. Bahnsen appears to have planned the work in three parts: 1) a positive statement, both biblical and philosophical, of the presuppositional method; 2) a critique of three other apologists who use the term “presuppositional,” in which Bahnsen shows their methods to fall short of the biblical presuppositional standard set by Van Til; and finally, 3) a critique of fully non-presuppositional proponents. Unfortunately, due to his self-imposed high standard of rigor and detail (and life circumstances), Bahnsen never completed the third section. Despite covering over two hundred manuscript pages, he only appears to have completed the first point in his outline for Part 3—covering three apologists under the heading “Positivists.” He left no further information for his outline. . . .

Of the two parts that fill this volume, the reader will see Bahnsen at his most precise, exacting, and faithful in explaining and applying apologetical methodology. Part 1 explains the method and reasons for the method in an in-depth fashion, exegeting vital biblical passages throughout Chapter 2, and analyzing relevant philosophical and ethical ideas in Chapter 3. This section we have titled, “Presuppositional Apologetics Positively Stated,” as this appears to approximate Bahnsen’s intention.

Part 2 examines three well-known apologists who often used the term, and whom many people identified as “presuppositional.” Bahnsen contrasts them against the standard of Van Til’s presuppositional method and shows the many ways and instances in which they—despite all of their many positive contributions and aspects—depart from a thoroughly biblical, presuppositional pattern. The names of Gordon H. Clark, Edward J. Carnell, and especially Francis Schaeffer, all find ready acknowledgement today for the most part. In critiquing such giants, Bahnsen shows clear awareness that the debate involved takes place between brothers in the faith—that this debate is an intramural debate. Nevertheless, Bahnsen thoroughly and boldly criticizes their departures from biblical methodology and calls readers to recognize and implement a more consistent approach.

The analysis of Schaeffer in particular carries great importance here. Among the three, Schaeffer by far had the widest influence, and yet his apologetic has probably endured the least scrutinizing. With the exception of a paper and a letter by Van Til—little-known outside of a few specialists—Schaeffer has received almost no critique from a thoroughly presuppositional perspective. This book provides a needed silence-breaking—and some may conclude groundbreaking—assessment. . . .

The Editorial Window

Entering the editing process at this stage provides some added benefits to those interested in the personality and character of the author. The perspective of the editor who gets to see the author’s mind and heart at work in revising his own words and ideas compares, analogously at least, to that of a pastor hearing private confession. He shares in keen and touching insights that others do not, presides over personal decisions that others do not, and he sees a side of the author that many readers may never know (and would almost certainly not know based on popular lore). The editor coming to a work already self-edited by the author, similarly watches that author reassess, correct, improve himself where others do not. Where these little “confessions” are favorable (and Bahnsen’s almost always are), sharing them publically, especially posthumously, can only inspire and encourage other apologists and scholars. Bahnsen would have certainly approved of such openness, especially towards furthering the quality of Christian scholarship.

The process of self-editing requires a tremendous amount of humility, as well as a knowledge sensitive of the intended audience. I believe Greg illustrates both in some of the following changes.

A first example involves a paragraph which he removed completely from Chapter 3, Article 7. It reads,

Any argument between an intelligent, self-conscious unbeliever and an intelligent, self-conscious Christian must eventually reduce to the appeal of ultimate, but diverse, presuppositions. A critical analysis of their respective language and logic would strip their arguments bare and reveal this fact. But the apologetic appeal will not always end in a deadlocked antithesis between the non-Christian and Christian. The Holy Spirit does grant the ability for the unbeliever to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, All that the Father has given to the Son will definitely come to Him (John 6:37).

Exactly why Bahnsen wanted this removed I cannot tell. It does seem to introduce too much of a dogmatically theological position into his “philosophical reflections” chapter, and perhaps he wished to avoid the risk of such a criticism, as insignificant as such a risk might be. The passage does show, however, how closely the Van Til-Bahnsen apologetic involves Reformed theology, the work of the Holy Spirit in apologetics, and a belief in predestination. This same focus echoes in another passage Bahnsen excised later from the same article:

We do not present Christianity as a “hypothesis” to be verified, and we are repulsed by the idea of presenting men with a “probability” to worship. Our apologetic must presuppose the authority and truth of Christ’s Word in Scripture, casting down all reasoning that exalts itself against God. We must use the tools supplied by the Holy Spirit, not the devices of sin. We must seriously recognize that the sinner’s problem in rejecting the Bible is ethical, not intellectual. Only regeneration can bring a man to belief, and apologetic argument must never presume to preempt or in any way take the place of regeneration.

I would have liked to have seen Bahnsen deal more with the relationship between apologetics and regeneration, or between apologetics and evangelism, within this work. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this relationship stands out here, and the reliance on the Holy Spirit rather than personal debating ability highlights Bahnsen’s presuppositional method. I also believe that the obvious Calvinism of the method presents a big obstacle to many of those who oppose it, but that matter belongs to another discussion.

While many early on painted Bahnsen with a reputation as a cold logician cutting through opponents’ arguments with the razor of Reformed dogma, this portrayal does not correlate with the self-corrections evident in this project. The process of editing this work finds him correcting his early draft in order to curb and soften some claims that would have come across too harshly. For example, he had originally written in Chapter 3, Article 7, “Since Scripture speaks of God’s unmistakable existence as absolutely certain and known to all men, it would be a denial of biblical faith to suppose His probable existence or to work toward proving Him to exist as such. Scripture does not present, nor do we worship, a probability.” Upon review, however, he realized that the phrase “a denial of biblical faith” states the case too strongly, and thus he revised it to read “a departure from truth.” Bahnsen certainly did not wish to argue for the apostasy of his intramural opponents. He in fact considered those apologists who opposed his method as yet part of a “united defense of the faith,” as he writes in the last paragraph of Chapter 1. Rather, he intended to convey that they simply interpreted the Bible incorrectly. To catch such a comment and to revise it in one’s own writing displays no small amount of sensitivity and willing humility.

Bahnsen’s excising of the following sentences from the same section reveals the same heart a work:

The very question of whether God might exist or Scripture might be true is tantamount to a denial of what Scripture says about God’s inescapably clear and authoritative revelation. To attempt an apologetic that takes an (allegedly) impartial starting point and method is to radically deny the existence of the Christian God as described in His nature and activities by Scripture.

I don’t know if he removed this due to eventually disagreeing with it, seeing it as unnecessary, judging it too strongly stated, or for some other reason. I personally tend to believe the statement in theory, though the inclusion of such in practice may have alienated many fellow apologists, unnecessarily I think. Once again, we have an argument about apologetical method hinging on a theological debate, in this case, the analogous debate about Eve’s sin: did she sin when she ate, or already in her heart when she first desired to eat. The Reformed view would, by and large, argue that Eve sinned at the very moment she questioned in her heart God’s revelation about the tree. The eating just outwardly manifested her sin, and certainly constituted sin in itself as well; but in truth, even before she touched the fruit she had committed the sin. At any rate, I believe Bahnsen wished to avoid the perception of contrasting fellow-believers’ positions so antithetically as “a denial of what Scripture says,” and, “radically deny the existence of the Christian God,” even though these descriptions bear much truth in the context. . . .

In regard to the quality of argument and character contained in this volume, we must remember—and it comes to my amazement—that Bahnsen completed the bulk of this text at the young age of twenty-five years old. Having completed his Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees simultaneously (unheard of then and now!) at Westminster Theological Seminary, he immediately began teaching alongside veteran professors at RTS in Jackson. To advance such a work as this one as far as he did while handling other duties, while engaging in other major theological debates, and yet maintaining something of a pastoral concern for his own words exhibits the highest of character and composure. In academic terms, about the only effort matching this in Reformed circles would be Calvin’s publication of the first edition of his Institutes (1536) at the age of twenty-six. . . .

Notes:

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