Puritan Gems

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: Presuppositional Apologetics - Stated and Defended

by Greg L. Bahnsen
Edited by Joel McDurmon

"A truly Christian defense of the faith must never fail to exalt Christ as Lord over all, including argumentation and reasoning. An apologetic that builds on any other rock than Christ does not honor the greatness of divine wisdom; it is foolishly and audaciously erected on the ruinous sands of human authority".

What originally began as two chapter contribution to a collection of essays on Van Til's Reformed apologetic grew to Bahnsen's magnum opus on apologetics. However, the manuscripts of this work were lost until after Bahnsen's death in 1995, and have recently been published posthumously by a combined effort between American Vision and Covenant Media.

Part One contains three chapters. The first chapter, Introduction: God In The Dock? focuses on the necessity of the presuppositional method and exposes the insufficiency of traditional apologetics. The "charter" passage of Christian apologetics. 1 Peter 3:15, begins by telling us to "Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts...", a commandment that is unwittingly ignored by non-presuppositional methods. The chapter seems to be quite repetitive, but as such reveals Bahnsen's passion for the church at large to adopt what we know to be the truth in our apologetics, that Christ is Lord, and that the Holy Scriptures are the best evidence for that fact, since it is God's revelation to us. As such, man has no place to stand in judge of God or His Word, since his own intellectual efforts can only be meaningful in a Christian, theistic worldview. When Christians try to "prove" the Christian Faith using non-believing metaphysics, they not only give the unbeliever a free pass in defending their autonomous metaphysic, but at best they can only show that God "probably exists", hardly enough to convince the unbeliever to submit to God's authority.

Instead, Scripture tells us that all men know God, because he has plainly revealed Himself to them. (Romans 1:19). Yet unbelievers "suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). In other words, the problem that the unbeliever has isn't intellectual, it is ethical. He is commanded to submit to the revealed word of God, but instead has claimed some sort of intellectual autonomy, assuming without any reason whatsoever that the human mind is capable of meaningful thought processes outside of the creative and providential attributes of God. "Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!" (Isaiah 5:21) What the unbeliever needs isn't simply "additional information" in regards to science, philosophy, history, etc. A good Calvinist should know better. What the unbeliever needs is a new way of thinking that relinquishes any claim to intellectual self-sufficiency. He needs to be born again. It is this innate knowledge of God which resides in fallen creatures that the apologist must appeal to, not some non-existent "neutral" stance that puts God in the Dock.

Developing a faithful apologetic is a question of ultimate authority. Does all knowledge proceed from the Sovereign Creator or the fallen creature? Bahnsen thus criticizes the basis for traditional apologetical methods because "It does not at base present the intellectual challenge of the gospel, but makes fatal concessions to the unbeliever's desire for intellectual self-sufficiency." (Bahnsen - PA, p. 13.) Bahnsen adds:

"It is futile to appeal to standards which are allegedly intelligible apart from the truth of God's Word. No fact can be understood, and no reasoning can be meaningful, apart from Christ as Creator and Redeemer of men. Scripture provides the interpretive context within which fact and logic can be intelligible and used aright."

This is a truth that all Christians believe at some level, and honor such in their proclamation of the faith. Yet we have a tendency to forget this in our apologetic task of defending that same faith.

Bahnsen closes the chapter by examining the foundation of Van Til's apologetic, showing how it drew from the disagreements between Abraham Kuyper and B.B Warfield, while avoiding the pitfalls of both.

Chapter Two, The Christian Mind and Method provides a more scriptural defense of Van Tillian apologetics, expounding Colossians 2:8 and examining Paul's apologetic approach in Lystra, Rome and Athens. In no case did Paul seek religious common ground with unbelievers, nor did he evangelize using mere "natural" revelation. Rather he appealed to their ignorance, vanity, and foolishness (p. 44). Bahnsen presents the natural antithesis between the standards of Christian knowledge and the sandy ground of human wisdom, and how Christians should never argue in a way that grants knowledge to the unbeliever.

"The Word of God should not be treated as a hypothesis to be proved by rational-empirical testing; it must never be reduced to the level of probability. It is the unquestionable Word of Christ our Lord; we must begin with its veracity and argue accordingly. It is the thinking of the rebellious sinner, not the Word of the Lord, that must be brought into question. Our defense of the faith does not work toward an honoring of Christ's lordship; it works under that lordship!" (PA, p. 27)

"...our apologetic must not call the Word of Christ into question, but must challenge the unbeliever to the impossibility of knowledge outside of Christ." (p. 28)

Scripture itself never takes the time to debate the existence of God, but rather proclaims it in a self-attesting, authoritative manner. So should we also develop an apologetic that is faithful to the true and living God of Scripture instead conceding to the "worldly wisdom" of those who cannot even account for the very tools that they used to argue against the Christian Faith. The unbeliever needs more than good arguments, or solid "evidence" based upon his own worldview. He needs what Bahnsen dubs "Redemptive Revelation", the type that Peter received in Matthew 16:16-17. He needs to be born again.

"The change from unbelief to belief is not merely a matter of degree or the addition of a few further steps in reasoning, but rather a radical change of mindset." (p. 47)

The problem that unbelievers have is that they are spiritual "schizophrenics", because they both know God and don't know God. As a result, the unbeliever is always battling against the image of the one true God that he has ingrained in him. As one created in the image of God, the unbeliever has adequate knowledge of God has Creator, and thus he is able to obtain some knowledge of his world in spite of himself. Yet "Without the Word of Christ there is no theoritical basis for logic, history, or science; so when the unbeliever fights against the gospel he is working toward ruining his very tools of destruction! His "wisdom" becomes folly." (p. 49) Thus a good and faithful apologist must presuppose the Word of God and use it as the basis for all reasoning.

Bahnsen closes the chapter by putting man in his place in terms of knowledge. When Job dared to question God, he found himself to be the one on trial (Job 40:1-8). Thus we should use the Word to judge the thought patterns of the unbeliever, not vice versa. Indeed, according to the Scriptures, a repentant faith is a prerequisite for true knowledge (2 Peter 1:5, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10, Proverbs 15:32, Job 11:12). We should faithfully use such knowledge "to overthrow reasonings and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Chapter 3, Neutrality & Autonomy Relinquished examines the groundless epistemology and metaphysics of unbelief. It includes Bahnsen's doctoral thesis on Self Deception, which explains how man can both know and not know God. It is possible for man to be wrong about his own knowledge, such as "knowing" a shortcut and getting lost, or being surprised at how he is able to pass a Calculus exam. In one sense, all men know God, because they live in God's universe, and cannot even function apart from acknowledging him in some way. God the Creator is known, because He has made Himself known in Creation (Romans 1:18-22). At the same time, they do not know God as Redeemer (and ultimately as Father) unless God Himself reveals it to him (Matthew 16:17).

By rejecting the need for revelatory epistemology, the non-believer is caught in a "subjective guessing game" about what he knows. Epistemology (What do we know?) and Metaphysics (How do we decide whether we know?) are mutually interdependent, and thus we are left with begging the question on every issue unless we can appeal to an ultimate authority. Thus there is really no such thing as an "unbiased" opinion on anything, because "one cannot gain an epistemological position untainted by metaphysical commitment" (p. 81). Neutrality is impossible, because we all have an "ultimate authority". As such, the real problem that an unbeliever has with Christianity is not a lack of evidence, for he has the same evidence that the believer has. The problem is with metaphysical commitment. Bahnsen goes on to explain how epistemology and metaphysics are, in fact, moral issues (obedience or disobedience to God's Word - see Romans 1:18.)

"Whether most philosophers like it or not, Scripture assuredly tells us the way a man uses his intellect is an ethical matter (e.g., rebellion against God leads to a darkened mind). Irrespective of the way in which men respond to it, God's clear revelation is the only escape we have from the skepticism that would otherwise result from the necessity of coordinating metaphysics and epistemology, and it is this revelation that provides both the epistemic ground and metaphysical content for the foundation of all of man's intellectual endeavors."

One of the most valuable contributions that Bahnsen's arms the Christian with is the ability to pull the rug out from the atheist concerning the tools he uses to debate. He summarized Thomas Kuhn's exhibit of the non-objective character of science and Kurt Godel's demonstratration of the non-neutrality of logic itself (p. 89). Both works beg further study, and I look forward to delving into these.

By expressing the need for revelational epistemology and exposing the end result rejecting Divine revelation, Bahnsen shows that the non-believers worldview ultimately leads to relativism in knowledge, failure in relevance and justification, chaos and subjectivism in history, and an irrational and unpredictable universe which makes science impossible (pp. 98-109).

At the end of Part One, Bahnsen makes us aware of the importance of the use of language, and how this use differs between different people, especially between believers and unbelievers (pp. 117-122). To quote Van Til:

"The basic falseness of this [traditional] apologetics appears in the virtual if not actual denial of the fact that the natural man makes false assumptions...Anyone who says "I believe in God," is formally correct in his statement, but the question is what does he mean by the word God? The traditional view assumes that the natural man has a certain measure of correct thought content when he uses the word God. It is his most effective tool for suppressing the sense of the true God that he cannot fully efface from the fibres of his heart... [The traditional apologist] must tie on to some small area of thought content that the believer and the unbeliever have in common without qualification when both are self-conscious with respect to their principle. This is tantamount to saying that those who interpret a fact as dependent upon God and those who interpret the same fact as not dependent upon God have yet said something identical about that fact" (Van Til's Defense of the Faith, cited by Bahnsen on p. 117).

In Part Two, Bahnsen deals with three Christian apologists (Gordon Clark, Edward J. Carnell, & Francis Schaeffer) that he charges with not using "Consistently Applied" Presuppositional Apologetics. While Bahnsen finds much to agree with in the presuppositional statements of these men (listed at the beginning of each section), he find that, as a whole, their apologetic is inconsistent.

In evaluating Gordon Clark, Bahnsen criticizes Clarks' invalid starting point, probablism, skepticism of sense experience, and Clark's "coherence test". In terms of Clark's starting point and probablism, Bahnsen cites Clark in a statement that is clearly not presuppositional, and requires some level of intellectual autonomy.

"That religion or Christianity in particular furnishes a better method than secularism is a possibility not to be dismissed without discussion" (cited by Bahnsen, p. 142)

So how would Clark arrive as such a conclusion? By tests of "logic" and "self-consistency".

"If the Biblical doctrines are self-consistent, they have met the only legitimate test of reason. This test of logic is precisely the requirement that a set of propositions be meaningful, whether spoken by God or man (p. 151)

Not only does Clark have an invalid starting point (intellectual autonomy), but such coherence tests require omniscience. However, the fatal flaw in such tests is that, when combined with Clark's skepticism of empiricism, Christianity fails Clark's test. Read the book for one example.

One final criticism of Clark's apologetic is that his skepticism of sense experience is irrational (we learn God's Word by sense experience) as well as unbiblical, (Faith cometh by hearing).

In the end, God Himself must be presented as the necessary precondition of "logic" as well as "sense experience". Clark fails to do this on a consistent basis.

Edward J. Carnell's apologetic works suffer the same shortcomings as Clark's, with a few additional problems. Carnell denies that God's Word is self verifying, and is repleat with rationalism and contradictions (ie. asserts the mind's depravity but not it's corruption). As with Clark, Carnell has an invalid starting point:

"a man of character can believe nothing until it is established by sufficient evidences" (p. 204)

Francis Schaeffer falls into the same error. His starting point leads to a surprising statement regarding the sufficiency of God's Word in evangelism:

"There must be a pre-evangelism before evangelism is meaningful to twentieth century people... This pre-consideration falls into two areas: the first is in the area of epistemology and the second, in the area of methodology" (p. 246)

Schaeffer views science as "incomplete", but fails to challenge naturalistic presuppositions.

While all three men were effective in their own right, they have a tendency to, on occasion, assert some sort of autonomy in human knowledge as the ultimate basis for their apologetic.

The book includes two valuable appendices:

1.) The Necessity For Revelational Epistemology

2.) The Pragmatist's Rejoinder And The Christian Alternative

Not only is the book highly recommended for those who wants a better grasp of Van Til and his apologetic method, but it is a must read for any Christian in dealing with our postmodern world and needing to develop a faithful, God-Centered apologetic. The failure to recognize the antithesis that exists between the believing an unbelieving worldviews lies at the root error of traditional apologetic methods, and thus those who use those methods are forced to make fatal concessions to those worldviews.

"The traditional based on the assumption that man has some measure of autonomy, that the space-time world is in some measure "contingent" and that man must create for himself his own epistemology in an ultimate sense.

"The traditional method was concessive on these basic points on which it should have demanded surrender! As such, it was always self-frustrating. The traditional method had explicitly built into it the right and ability of the natural man, apart from the work of the Spirit of God, to be the judge of the claim of the authoritative Word of God. It is man who, by means of his self-established intellectual tools, puts his "stamp of approval" on the Word of God and then, only after this grand act, does he listen to it. God's Word must first pass man's tests of good and evil, truth and falsity. But once you tell a non-Christian this, why should he be worried by anything else that you say. [sic] You have already told him that he is quite alright just the way he is! Then Scripture is not correct when it talks of "darkened minds," "wilful ignorance," "dead men," and "blind people"! With this method the correctness of the natural man's problematics is endorsed. That is all he needs to reject the Christian faith." (Cornelius Van Til - cited by Bahnsen, PA. pp. 13-14)

Published by American Vision and Covenant Media Press 2008
314 Pages
College Reading Level

Purchase it Here


Mason said...


Thought you might be interested to know, I purchased this book yesterday after reading your excellent post.


Puritan Lad said...

Thanks Mason.

It's a little pricey, but well worth the investment.

Unknown said...

Yeah I think AV overprices their stuff. I am happy that they published this.