[originally posted on 14 April 2007]
The late Calvinist Greg L. Bahnsen (1948-1995) was an articulate (arguably the foremost and most respectable) exponent of presuppositional apologetics. Rather than summarize that point of view, I’ll let readers unfamiliar with this approach learn of it from one of its ablest proponents in recent times. I’m very interested at this point in going right to the heart of the matter and looking at what Scripture teaches, and how practical evangelism and apologetics (my abiding interest and vocation) can benefit from these insights.
I am delighted to be able to interact with someone who also incorporates much biblical exegesis into his analysis. The article cited below (in its entirety) is “Evangelism and Apologetics,” published in Synapse III (Fall 1974). Dr. Bahnsen’s words will be in blue.
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The very reason why Christians are put in the position of giving a reasoned account of the hope that is in them is that not all men have faith. Because there is a world to be evangelized (men who are unconverted), there is the need for the believer to defend his faith: Evangelism naturally brings one into apologetics. This indicates that apologetics is no mere matter of “intellectual jousting”; it is a serious matter of life and death – eternal life and death. The apologist who fails to take account of the evangelistic nature of his argumentation is both cruel and proud. Cruel because he overlooks the deepest need of his opponent and proud because he is more concerned to demonstrate that he is no academic fool tha[n] to show how all glory belongs to the gracious God of all truth. Evangelism reminds us of who we are (sinners saved by grace) and what our opponents need (conversion of heart, not simply modified propositions).
I believe, therefore, that the evangelistic nature of apologetics shows us the need to follow a presuppositional defense of the faith.
He merely assumes what he is seeking to prove (with the “therefore” and the “need”) that presuppositionalism is the only way to go about this. I will attempt to show why I think his conclusion is incorrect, in replying to his apologia.
In contrast to this approach stand the many systems of neutral autonomous argumentation.
This is a caricature of evidential apologetics, as I will also demonstrate.
Sometimes the demand to assume a neutral stance, a noncommittal attitude toward the truthfulness of Scripture,
This is the presuppositional (and I am using that word in the more generic, philosophical sense in this instance) baggage that Bahnsen assumes from the outset. But it is a false premise. Neither I nor any orthodox Christian evidentialist apologist I know of thinks like this. It’s a straw man. We do not take a “noncommittal attitude toward the truthfulness of Scripture”; there is no reason to believe that non-Calvinist, non-presuppositionalist or evidentialist apologists take, on the whole, a lower view of Scripture than Bahnsen does. I certainly don’t. It is ridiculous, then, to make out that this is the case.
Bahnsen, sadly, falls prey to the tendency in theological argumentation, to paint the opponent as a liberal dissenter from received orthodoxy, and/or one who lacks rudimentary Christian faith. This is not only erroneous and inaccurate; it is downright slanderous and the bearing of false witness against Christian brothers. I don’t have to imply that Bahnsen is a liberal in disagreeing with him. It is simply an honest disagreement on apologetic method. How sad that he seems unable to return the favor to those he disagreed with.
But that is, of course, the strong tendency in the anti-Catholic Calvinist approach (which — I hasten to add — is not that of all Calvinists, by any stretch). It’s not only Catholics who are read out of the faith, but oftentimes, Arminian Protestants also; or they are portrayed as “sub-biblical” (the term James White recently applied to William Lane Craig) or greatly compromised and barely Christian, if they are at all.
is heard in the area of Christian scholarship (whether it be the field of history, science, literature, philosophy, or whatever). Teachers, researchers, and writers are often led to think that honesty demands for them to put aside all distinctly Christian commitments when they study in an area which is not directly related to matters of Sunday worship.
This is true, and indeed an ever-present danger, but I think it is far more true of Christian academics than of apologists.
They reason that since truth is truth wherever it may be found, one should be able to search for truth under the guidance of the acclaimed thinkers in the field, even if they are secular in their outlook. “Is it really necessary to hold to the teachings of the Bible if you are to understand properly the War of 1812, the chemical composition of water, the plays of Shakespeare, or the rules of logic?” Such is their rhetorical question.
The Bible (quite obviously) doesn’t discuss many, many things. One must distinguish between:
1) when it is proper to involve the Bible in a particular discussion,
2) one’s own belief in the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.
One can hold #2 with full vigor, yet not think it is necessary to bring biblical discussion to every particular discussion (the factor of #1). But Bahnsen seems to think that one must always do so, under pain of being accused of an alleged “neutralist” stance concerning the Bible or Christian faith itself.
Hereby the demand for neutrality arises in the realm of apologetics (defense of the faith). We are told by some apologists that they would lose all hearing with the unbelieving world if they were to approach the question of Scripture’s truthfulness with a preconceived answer to the question.
Well, this is a false dilemma. We can (assuming the appropriate education in apologetics and other competing systems) obviously approach the unbeliever (I do this all the time) with the following four propositions, which don’t contradict each other:
1) I believe in Christianity [in my case, Catholic Christianity] and the Bible.
2) I have many reasons why I believe in Christianity [and Catholic Christianity — but that should come later in the discussion] and the Bible, which I would be more than happy to present to you, as the occasion and need may arise to do so.
3) I can submit to you many reasons why you, too, should believe in the Bible and Christianity, according to your own presuppositions (especially the ones that you and I already hold in common).
4) At the same time, I can demonstrate to you how and why your own presuppositions lead to an ultimately absurd and false end result or conclusion, and that, therefore, Christianity is the ultimate truth and spiritual reality.
Now, how does such an approach violate the Christian belief-system or one’s own firmly-held principles or “integrity”? How is this a “neutral” stance? #1 clearly lays out “this is what I believe.” It is the furthest thing from a denial of that belief. But giving reasons for a belief is different from the belief itself, and can be undertaken in many different ways. The “what” and “why” of faith are two different things. This is obvious. And when arguing with someone of a very different belief-system (say, atheism) one has to discuss issues in terms that the person can understand, lest the endeavor of persuasion be completely futile and a waste of time.
If apologetics is collapsed into simply proclamation and preaching, then why bother to give reasons at all? That would be the death of apologetics. The “why” would be irrelevant and only the “what” of doctrinal content would matter. But reasoning presupposes that there are ways and methods to effectively persuade others (as St. Paul noted — see below). Rhetoric and method and “granting for the sake of argument” are not the same as chameleon-like changing of one’s views.
We must be willing, according to this outlook, to approach the debate with unbelievers with a common attitude of neutrality – a “nobody knows as yet” attitude. We must assume as little as possible at the outset, we are told; and this means that we cannot assume any Christian premises or teachings of the Bible. Thus the Christian is called upon to surrender his distinctive religious beliefs, to temporarily “put them on the shelf,” to take a neutral attitude in his thinking.
No one is “surrendering” anything! This is ludicrous. It gets to the heart of the matter, and illustrates the fundamental misconception that Bahnsen has of evidentialism (and this is common: I have encountered this fallacy many times). The crucial, supremely important distinction that must be highlighted here is between the two following propositions:
1) Apologist x believes a set of propositions y, concerning Christianity and the Bible (where y is defined as “Christian orthodoxy”, however determined: which is another huge discussion in and of itself).
2) Apologist x, if he is to do apologetics successfully and wisely, must find a reasonable, plausible method and way to present both y and especially the reasons for y (that we shall call a [apologetics]), without in the least intending to disbelieve any portion of y. In other words, presentation and personal belief are two completely different things. To argue effectively, one must understand his opponent’s point of view (ideally, even better than the opponent does himself). To then effectively counter and refute it, one must utilize methods that the opponent can relate to.
St. Paul expressed the same notion in the following terms:
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20: To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. 21: To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law.
Note the terms that I have highlighted with green. This is, very much, apologetic / evangelistic methodology. Paul expressly states that he “became as” and “I have made myself” thus and so, according to opinion and state of the hearer he is seeking to reach. But he didn’t become “neutral”. It was a methodological approach, not somehow a temporary change of position, as if Christian doctrine were a chameleon or a wax nose that changes according to whim and situation. Paul makes it clear that his views did not change in so dong (“though not being myself” / “not being without law”).
This is what Bahnsen fails to understand. Methodology is not identical to personal belief, nor is epistemology the equivalent of ontology. One can believe a certain thing, but defend it in many different ways, without surrendering or compromising the belief itself. No one is pretending to be “neutral” simply because they argue something a particular way with a particular target audience. Why this is so difficult, apparently, for Bahnsen and presuppositionalists to grasp, is, I confess, a deep mystery to me. I should think it were self-evident. And it is entirely Pauline and biblical to think in this manner.
Satan would love this to happen. More than anything else, this would prevent the conquest of the world to belief in Jesus Christ as Lord. More than anything else, this would make professing Christians impotent in their witness, ineffective in their evangelism, and powerless in their apologetic.
Yes, if Bahnsen were correct and every time a non-Calvinist, non-presuppositionalist apologist opened his mouth to defend Christianity, it entailed an absurd modus operandi of denying various tenets of Christian faith in order to convince one of it (as if that were sensible or even possible) then he would be right. But it is a straw man from the outset.
The apologetical neutralist should reflect upon the nature of evangelism; such reflection demonstrates that (at least) in the following seven ways evangelism requires a presuppositional apologetic.
Okay; let’s look and see what case he can made. I look forward to it. I love to see people defend their positions from the Bible and reason. But remember that he has started out with a demonstrably false first premise, and keep that in mind as we proceed. It will keep coming up, because false premises have a way of intruding themselves into the later false conclusions that derive from them. Also remember that I vigorously deny that I am a “neutralist” simply because I am not a presuppositionalist. I’m not neutral at all; I am fully committed to Christianity (and more particularly to Catholic Christianity, should the discussion get that far). It’s what I defend after all. How can I defend something that I don’t believe, myself? What sense does that make?
Now, how is that “neutral”? In fact, it is so un-neutral and “partisan” that Bahnsen himself would strenuously object to my position of “Romanism” as not even Christian. But when I am defending things he and I would hold in common (as I almost always do in discussions with atheists or cultists like Jehovah’s Witnesses), it is irrelevant whether I am a Catholic or not. In other words, when I am standing side-by-side with Bahnsen and James White and others who say I am no Christian, and defending the deity of Christ or the Trinity or the bodily resurrection of Jesus , what I argue is true (even in their eyes), so it matters not whether I am a Catholic (which they think is sub-Christian). In any event, I am not “neutral.”
In attempting to bear glad tidings to the unbelieving world, the neutralist is robbed of his treasure
Contrary to neutrality’s demand, God’s word demands unreserved allegiance to God and his truth in all our thought and scholarly endeavors. It does so for a good reason.
But as I have shown, this is not at issue. See how Bahnsen is now building upon the first premise. It’s like the old notion of building a castle of sand, or a house of cards. Even Jesus talked about building a house without a solid foundation. That’s how logic works, too.
Paul infallibly declares in Colossians 2:3-8 that “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Christ.” Note he says all wisdom and knowledge is deposited in the person of Christ – whether it be about the War of 1812, water’s chemical composition, the literature of Shakespeare, or the laws of logic!
From the fact that God knows all things (omniscience) and has made all knowledge possible, it doesn’t follow that we must mention God or the Bible in every conceivable discussion on any imaginable subject. And this is self-evident. So why even bother mentioning it? It simply reduces to my first clause: “God knows all things (omniscience) and has made all knowledge possible”. Great. Wonderful. All Christians know and believe this. No one is denying it.
Bahnsen’s fallacy lies in thinking that it is being denied simply because God isn’t mentioned in every sentence the Christian utters (or, as the case may be, an entire essay on any given non-theological subject). If an entire book of the Bible didn’t even mention God (Esther) why must Christians do so at every turn, pray tell? It’s like telling one’s wife that one loves her, at the beginning of every sentence:
“I love you dearly, sweetheart; um, could you get me a new roll of toilet paper?”
“I love you; you’re the greatest. Do you know what time the game is on tonight?”
“I love you more than anything in the world and you are the dearest thing imaginable to me; the greatest woman and wife and mother in world history. I’d gladly die for you. I would drink your dirty bathwater. Oh, by the way, have you seen my light blue dress shirt?”
No one talks like this. In any normally happy marriage, the wife knows she is loved without being told 742 times a day (in fact, arguably that would cheapen and trivialize love and romance because it would become rote and automatic). And for Christians to be required to do something similar with God and the Bible simply makes us look like idiots. We don’t deny anything we believe in not mentioning the basics of what we believe over and over.
And the unbeliever (if he knows us at all) already knows what we believe, at least in general outline, without us beating it into the ground and boring him to death. it is no help to effective evangelism to be regarded as obsessed, weird, odd, socially-maladjusted people who have to repeat things ad infinitum, lest we supposedly deny what we believe.
Every academic pursuit and every thought must be related to Jesus Christ, for Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). To avoid Christ in your thought at any point, then, is to be misled, untruthful, and spiritually dead.
What does it mean to “avoid Christ”? That’s the question. If I come right out and deny that Jesus is Lord of all of life and all of creation, or say something stupid like “God has no bearing on what I do in the bedroom” (as many millions of Protestants — and Catholics — do when they use contraception or divorce for ultimately sexual and selfish reasons) then that is completely unacceptable; I agree. But if I happen not to mention Jesus in some particular argument (as I have done throughout this response, and as Bahnsen himself has done, too), it doesn’t follow that I have denied same.
To put aside your Christian commitments when it comes to defending the faith is willfully to steer away from the only path to wisdom and truth found in Christ. It is not the end or outcome of knowledge to fear the Lord; it is the beginning of knowledge to reverence Him (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Paul draws to our attention the impossibility of neutrality “in order that no one delude you with crafty speech.” Instead we must, as Paul exhorts, be steadfast, confirmed, rooted, and established in the faith as we were taught (v. 7).
Absolutely. But I have never denied this; nor has any published, credentialed, reputable evidentialist apologist (Protestant or Catholic) that I am aware of, so it is a red herring.
One must be presuppositionally committed to Christ in the world of thought (rather than neutral) and firmly tied down to the faith which he has been taught, or else the persuasive argumentation of secular thought will delude him. Hence the Christian is obligated to presuppose the word of Christ in every area of knowledge; the alternative is delusion. In verse 8 of Colossians 2, Paul says, “Beware lest any man rob you by means of philosophy and vain deceit.” By attempting to be neutral in your thought you are a prime target for being robbed – robbed by “vain philosophy” of “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” which are deposited in Christ alone (v. 3). The unbeliever’s darkened mind is an expression of his need to be evangelized.
This is a very poor commentary of the passage in question because it leaves crucial portions out, thus giving a misleading impression of what Paul is stating. St. Paul (actually considered in context) was not opposed to all philosophy whatsoever, or philosophy per se. He tries to pit philosophy against the wisdom and knowledge of Christ. But Bahnsen didn’t even cite the entire verse:
Colossians 2:8 (RSV) See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.
We see that Paul is not condemning philosophy at all (just as he doesn’t condemn all tradition, as many Protestants falsely suppose) but only the philosophy of mere “human tradition” or that which is “not according to Christ.” In other words, there can be a true Christian philosophy (and tradition) that is divine in origin and according to Christ.
If Paul were so opposed to philosophy itself, or even to non-Christian philosophy alone, then why did he cite pagan Greek poets, philosophers, and dramatists (and the Greeks started philosophy and excelled in it): Acts 17:28 (Aratus: c. 315-240 B.C., Epimenides: 6th c. B.C.), 1 Corinthians 15:33 (Menander: c.342-291 B.C.: “bad company ruins good morals”), and Titus 1:12 (Epimenides, described by Paul as a “prophet”)?
In fact, the line that Paul cited on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:28), from Aratus, was actually, in context, talking about Zeus:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring… (Phaenomena 1-5).
So Paul used a pagan poet, talking about a false god (Zeus) and “Christianized” the thought, applying it to the true God. That’s Pauline apologetic method, and I seek to imitate him (as he commanded) in this way as in others. The Church has done this, historically, by “co-opting” pagan holidays and “baptizing” them, thus eventually wiping out the old pagan holidays. This is certainly not presuppositionalistic apologetic method (Bahnsen, if consistent, would have to rule this out as an instance of supposedly being “neutral” as to Christian belief in order to effectively persuade the non-Christian pagan Greek). But it’s very biblical and Pauline, isn’t it?
The citation from Epimenides (the poem Cretica) involves the same thing; it was originally written about Zeus; Paul (Acts 17:28 again) takes it and applies it to Yahweh, the true God:
They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one—
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.
St. Paul expressly cites these pagan Greek poets and philosophers precisely because that is what his sophisticated Athens audience (including “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” — 17:18) could understand and relate too. He was using wise apologetic method and strategy. This is Paul giving a concrete example of the evangelistic application of his dictum of 1 Corinthians 9:21: “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law.”
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4 that to follow the methods dictated by the intellectual outlook of those who are outside of a saving relationship to God is to have a vain mind and darkened understanding (vv. 17-18).
That would be fascinating, wouldn’t it? So the Paul of the Mars Hill sermon-speech contradicted the Paul of Ephesians 4, since he “followed the methods” and utilized the “intellectual outlook” of Greek philosophy, in citing poems devoted to Zeus and mentioning idols he had seen? Nuh-uh. Rather, it is Bahnsen who is self-contradictory, not Paul, who was perfectly consistent (and no presuppositionalist).
Ephesians 4:17-18 is a different context. Paul was saying that a Christian must live and think differently from a pagan. Being a Christian made a difference; a regenerated mind is a massive change. The passage (especially seen in its context to the end of the chapter: verse 4:32) is much more about morals than about false philosophy (“the life of God”, “hardness of heart”, “licentiousness”, “uncleanness”, “deceitful lusts”, etc. But obviously Paul was not teaching that the Gentiles had no truth whatsoever, or else he wouldn’t have cited their own thinkers. So Bahnsen is the one who has trouble synthesizing the two aspects, not St. Paul, because he is of an insufficiently biblical and Pauline mindset.
Neutralist thinking, then, is characterized by intellectual futility and ignorance.
There is plenty of this ignorance and fallacy to go around, as I think I am showing. I should come up with a new name for presuppositionalists, too, since Bahnsen insists on using the false title of “neutralist” for evidentialist or “classical” apologists. But in my case, the description would be true. How about “circularist” — to stand for the viciously circular reasoning that not only characterizes presuppositionalism, but self-consciously and proudly so, on their part? But that would not be nice, even though true.
In God’s light, we are able to see light (cf. Ps. 36:9). To turn away from intellectual dependence upon the light of God, the truth about and from God, is to turn away from knowledge to the darkness of ignorance. Thus, if a Christian wishes to begin his scholarly endeavors from a position of neutrality he would, in actuality, be willing to begin his thinking in the dark.
If anyone actually did this, I’d like to see an example. I deny that it is true of any decent apologist.
He would not allow God’s word to be a light unto his path (cf. Ps. 119:105). To walk on in neutrality, he would be stumbling along in darkness. God is certainly not honored by such thought as he should be, and consequently God makes such reasoning vain (Rom. 1:21b). Neutrality amounts to vanity in God’s sight.
Insofar as this “neutrality” is lack of belief in the Christian tenets that ought to be believed, I agree. I disagree that it is a relevant description of mainstream evidentialist apologists or apologetics.
That “philosophy” which does not find its starting point and direction in Christ is further described by Paul in Colossians 2:8. Paul is not against the “love of wisdom” (i.e., “philosophy” from the Greek) per se. Philosophy is fine as long as one properly finds genuine wisdom – which means, for Paul, finding it in Christ (Col. 2:3).
Good. This was not made clear earlier, but I am delighted to see that Bahnsen states this now.
However, there is a kind of “philosophy” which does not begin with the truth of God, the teaching of Christ. Instead this philosophy takes its direction and finds its origin in the accepted principles of the world’s intellectuals – in the traditions of men. Such philosophy as this is the subject of Paul’s disapprobation in Colossians 2:8. It is instructive for us, especially if we are prone to accept the demands of neutrality in our thinking, to investigate his characterizations of that kind of philosophy.
I already explored some of that in my survey of his use of pagan Greek thought in Athens and in two other passages in his writings.
Paul says that it is “vain deception.” What kind of thinking is it that can be characterized as “vain”? A ready answer is found by comparison and contrast in scriptural passages that speak of vanity (e.g., Deut. 32:47; Phil. 2:16; Acts 4:25; 1 Cor. 3:20; 1 Tim. 1:6; 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:15-18; Titus 1:9-10). Vain thinking is that which is not in accord with God’s word.
A similar study will demonstrate that “deceptive” thinking is thought which is in opposition to God’s word (cf. Heb. 3:12-15; Eph. 4:22; 2 Thess. 2:10-12; 2 Pet. 2:13). The “vain deception” against which Paul warns, then, is philosophy which operates apart from, and against, the truth of Christ.
Note the injunction of Ephesians 5:6, “Let no man deceive you with vain words.” In Colossians 2:8 we are told to take care lest we be robbed through “vain deceit.” Paul further characterizes this kind of philosophy as “according to the tradition of men, after the fundamental principles of the world.”
Good. This should have been pointed out in the earlier passage (which, as it reads, presents a half-truth and could potentially mislead or confuse the reader), but better late than never.
That is, this philosophy sets aside God’s word and makes it void (cf. Mark 7:8-13), and it does so by beginning with the elements of learning dictated by the world (i.e., the precepts of men; cf. Col. 2:20, 22). The philosophy which Paul spurns is that reasoning which follows the presuppositions (the elementary assumptions) of the world, and thereby is “not according to Christ.”
But Paul arguably did that himself by arguing from belief in Zeus to the fuller reality and truth of Yahweh. Without denying his own belief in the slightest, Paul argued from Greek presuppositions (also in referring to the Athenian “unknown god” — 17:23, and how “religious” the Greeks were — 17:22). Zeus is not according to Christ at all. The belief was a mere fiction, and statues of Zeus that were worshiped were abominable idols. Yet Paul uses these elements to build a bridge to the pagan Greeks.
Would Greg Bahnsen have done that, given his approach (or, try to imagine James White — whose apologetical hero is Bahnsen — arguing in such a fashion; it’s comical to even picture)? Highly unlikely, because he seems to condemn all points of contact, when it involves use of non-Christian constructs and premises to argue upwards to Christian ones. One can hardly conceive of a presuppositionalist using Paul’s methods at the Areopagus. It directly contradicts their apologetic approach.
The neutralist overlooks that antithesis between the Christian and non-Christian which explains why the believer is in a position to aid the unbeliever
Not at all, as we shall see. The circularist (sorry!) fails to prove this charge . . .
In Ephesians 4:17-18, Paul commands the followers of Christ that they “no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance in them, because of the hardening of their heart.” Christian believers must not walk, must not behave or live, in a way which imitates the behavior of those who are unredeemed; specifically, Paul forbids the Christian from imitating the unbeliever’s vanity of mind.
False philosophy (as well as sin) is to be avoided; absolutely. It doesn’t follow that there is no good whatsoever in pagan and Gentile thinking. Jesus “marveled” at the Roman centurion, after all, and said of him: “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). Note that this is not simply philosophy and thinking, but “faith.” Paul echoes this understanding in Romans 2:12-16. Not all pagan thought is wicked and evil. There is also a lot of truth (and in their morals, as well, as Paul states in Romans 2, and according to how he argued on Mars Hill).
Bahnsen, like many Calvinists, is guilty of painting with too broad of a brush. Whatever truly opposes Christ and Christianity is, of course, wicked and evil and from the pit of hell. I wholeheartedly agree. But not all that is non-Christian is unalterably opposed to Christianity. There is common ground. That’s the point. It even applies to unregenerate souls. We see that Jesus and Paul were quite compassionate and understanding of nonbelievers and didn’t seem to regard them to the man as utterly wicked.
On the other hand, the worst condemnations of Paul and Jesus were directed towards Jewish and Christian religious hypocrites who didn’t rightly act upon what they believed. Hence Paul emphasized what folks did with the knowledge they possessed, whether Christian (Rom 2:6:9-10,13; 1 Cor 3:8-9; Phil 2:12-13; Titus 3:8; cf. 1 Pet 1:17) or non-Christian (Rom 2:6,9-10,14-15), even tying this directly to justification itself. St. Peter speaks the same language in dealing with Cornelius the Gentile (Acts 10:35), saying that a nonbeliever can be “acceptable” to God. Our Lord Jesus emphasized the same thing again and again (Mt 5:20; 7:16-27; 16:27; 25:31-46; Lk 14:13-14; 18:18-25; Jn 3:36; Rev 22:12).
Christians must refuse to think or reason according to a worldly mind-set or outlook. The culpable agnosticism of the world’s intellectuals must not be reproduced in Christians as alleged neutrality; this outlook, this approach to truth, this intellectual method evidences a darkened understanding and hardened heart. It refuses to bow to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every area of life, including scholarship and the world of thought. Every man, whether an antagonist or an apologist for the Gospel, will distinguish himself and his thinking either by contrast to the world or by contrast to God’s word.
Truth is truth. If a pagan, atheist, or devil-worshiper says “2+2=4” or “water freezes and turns into ice below 0 degrees Celsius” or “the Beatles are unarguably the greatest rock group ever” (just being a little lighthearted!) it is just as true as when a Christian says it. We are not to think false thoughts, and there is plenty of falsehood in Christian circles, and in Bahnsen’s own analysis. The devil is the father of lies.
Unbelievers have no lock on that shortcoming. In fact, Protestants are often lax about falsehood, because they will try to justify, for example, denominationalism and latitudinarianism, where they are quite happy (very unlike the first Protestants and particularly Luther and Calvin) to allow for divergences of opinion about important things. Baptism is the classic example.
Greg Bahnsen is James White’s hero, but White is a Baptist who believes in adult, believer’s baptism, whereas Bahnsen the Presbyterian would have accepted infant baptism. They can’t resolve what “perspicuous” biblical teaching is on this matter. And of course, Luther also believed that baptism regenerated, contrary to both White and Bahnsen.
Now, whenever there is a direct doctrinal contradiction among Protestants of this sort (they may not know where it is located, but it is undoubtedly present somewhere because of the laws of logic and contradiction), falsehood is necessarily present. And falsehood is bad and wicked and does no one any good. But it is routinely winked at and sanctioned in Protestantism when contradictions are allowed — even encouraged — to be maintained. Catholicism, on the other hand, will have none of this (except for latitude on the most complex things, like Thomism and Molinism), but not on any doctrinal or dogmatic issue. So why is Bahnsen so concerned with nonbelieving error (which we fully expect) while seemingly unconcerned with massive falsehood in Protestant ranks?
There can be falsehood among Christians and truth among non-Christians. Thus, it is far better to speak of truth wherever it is found, than to vainly pretend that all Christians have all truth and non-Christians are wicked through and through and have none, or very little truth. It just isn’t so. And thank God that it isn’t: he gives plenty of grace to go around.
The contrast, the antithesis, the choice is clear: either be set apart by God’s truthful word or be alienated from the life of God. Either have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) or the “vain mind of the Gentiles” (Eph. 4:17). Either bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) or continue as “enemies in your mind” (Col. 1:21).
No problem there; only in the exaggerated, absurd, fallacious way in which this premise works its way into the method of presuppositionalism.
Those who follow the intellectual principle of neutrality and the epistemological method of unbelieving scholarship do not honor the sovereign Lordship of God as they should; as a result, their reasoning is made vain (Rom. 1:21). In Ephesians 4, as we have seen, Paul prohibits the Christian from following this vain mind-set. Paul goes on to teach that the believer’s thinking is diametrically contrary to the ignorant and darkened thinking of the Gentiles. “But you did not learn Christ after this manner!” (v. 20). While the Gentiles are ignorant, “the truth is in Jesus” (v. 21). Unlike the Gentiles who are alienated from the life of God, the Christian has put away the old man and has been “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (vv. 22-23).
Here we go with the broad brush again. This is not Paul’s entire teaching, or else he couldn’t have written that Gentiles who didn’t even have the law (which was prior to even the Christian gospel and regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) still had a conscience that could enable them to know what was right and wrong (Rom 2:14-16) and possibly be saved (2:15-16). That’s why Jesus could say that many Gentiles would be saved, while many of the Jews would be damned (Matthew 8:11-12; 21:21: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”).
This “new man” is distinctive in virtue of the “holiness of truth” (v. 24). The Christian is completely different from the world when if comes to intellect and scholarship; he does not follow the neutral methods of unbelief, but by God’s grace he has new commitments, new presuppositions, in his thinking.
His mind is renewed and regenerated; no doubt; this doesn’t prove that no good or true thought comes from a non-Christian context. It’s the same false premise over and over again. Repetition doesn’t make it any more true or any less false.
Attempting to be neutral in one’s intellectual endeavors (whether research, argumentation, reasoning, or teaching) is tantamount to striving to erase the antithesis between the Christian and the unbeliever. Christ declared that the former was set apart from the latter by the truth of God’s word (John 17:17). Those who wish to gain dignity in the eyes of the world’s intellectuals by wearing the badge of “neutrality” only do so at the expense of refusing to be set apart, by God’s truth. In the intellectual realm they are absorbed into the world so that no one could tell the difference between their thinking and assumptions and apostate thinking and assumptions. The line between believer and unbeliever is obscured.
For liberals, that is true, but it’s not true of those who have a traditional Christian belief. The manifold compromises (invariably sexual and gender-related in terms of morals) of Protestantism with the world again come into mind. Contraception is clearly a compromise with the sexual revolution; so is divorce and radical feminism and cohabitation and abortion and lack of desire to have children (under zero population growth) and female ordination (that flows from the false feminist premise that difference in gender roles is tantamount to inherent inequality and “patriarchy”).
Catholicism doesn’t allow for any of these things: never has and never will, but Protestantism does (more and more) all over the place. I submit that Bahnsen should have been at least equally alarmed at that massive infiltration of falsehood and immorality into conservative Protestant ranks. No Christians believed in the moral permissiveness of contraception until the Anglicans allowed “hard cases” in 1930. What was formerly evil was then called good.
Now the vast majority of Protestants accept this pagan sexual morality and see nothing wrong with it whatsoever. I did it myself (from 1984-1990: the first six years of my marriage), until some Catholics talked some sense into me and informed me of the historic Christian moral teaching. Who was ignorant there? I was! I was in darkness, as a regenerated, Spirit-filled, wholly-committed Christian (a missionary, an apologist); calling evil good and not having the slightest awareness that I was doing so.
But Bahnsen and his followers today among Calvinists (he seems to be some sort of icon or champion among them, spoken of in awestruck, hushed terms) want to go on and on about how Christians have all truth and the nonbelievers are purely wicked and deluded? Why is it, then, that Muslims, by and large, still believe in having large families and do far better on the whole in that regard than Christians, who should know better (and who used to do the same until the Sexual Revolution)? Why is it that these same Muslims (for the most part) don’t practice fornication or cohabitation or divorce or abortion? They know better than Christians without even the correct doctrine of God and the Holy Spirit and regeneration? How can that be if Bahnsen is correct? There are many pro-life atheists (such as, notably, Nat Hentoff) and many Christian pro-abortionists.
No such compromise is even possible. “No man is able to serve two lords” (Matt. 6:24). “Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself, an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
My point exactly. Jesus told us to get our own house in order first.
The nature of conversion is not continued neutrality and autonomy, but faith and submission to the Lordship of Christ
When one becomes a Christian, his faith has not been generated by the thought patterns of worldly wisdom. The world in its wisdom knows not God (1 Cor. 1:21) but considers the word of the cross to be foolish (1 Cor. 1:18, 21b).
This is correct. Faith and regeneration come as a result of the supernatural work of God, and God alone, through justification, the Holy Spirit, and the sacramental power of baptism, for the remission of sins (Jn 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 6:11; Titus 3:5;1 Pet 3:21).
If one keeps the perspective of the world, then, he shall never see the wisdom of God for what it really is; thereby he will never be “in Christ Jesus” who is made unto believers “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30). Hence faith, rather than self-sufficient sight, makes you a Christian, and this trust is directed toward Christ, not your own intellect. This is to say that the way you receive Christ is to turn away from the wisdom of men (the perspective of secular thought with its presuppositions) and gain, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:12-16). When one becomes a Christian, his faith stands not in the wisdom of men but in the powerful demonstration of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
Yes; properly applied, as we have been seeing . . .
Moreover, what the Holy Spirit causes all believers to say is “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3). Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and ascended in order that he might be confessed as Lord (cf. Rom. 14:9; Phil. 2:11). Thus Paul can summarize that message which must be confessed if we are to be saved as “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9). To become a Christian one submits to the Lordship of Christ; he renounces autonomy and comes under the authority of God’s Son. The One whom Paul says we receive, according to Colossians 2:6, is Christ Jesus the Lord. As Lord over the believer, Christ requires that the Christian love him with every faculty he possesses (including his mind, Matt. 22:37); every thought must be brought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
Of course. How many Christians actually do this, though, is the immediate consideration.
Therefore, the evangelistic apologist must come and reason as a new man if he is to direct the unbeliever; his argumentation must be consistent with the end toward which he aims
Sure; what Christian would argue otherwise?
We note that the unqualified precondition of genuine Christian scholarship is that the believer (along with all his thinking) be “rooted in Christ” (Col. 2:7). Paul commands us to be rooted in Christ and to shun the presuppositions of secularism.
That’s tough to do when so many Christians (by the multiple millions) are neck deep in pagan. non-Christian sexual morality. They not only accept pagan thinking, but )as a special bonus) live it out too. And Protestant church leaders (and compromised Catholic priests who don’t even follow their own Church’s teaching) wink at all this and do nothing about it. The Episcopalians (the denomination of C.S. Lewis) even ordain practicing homosexuals as bishops.
In verse 6 of Colossians 2, he explains very simply how we should go about having our lives (including our scholarly endeavors) grounded in Christ and thereby insuring that our reasoning is guided by Christian presuppositions. He says, “As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord so walk in Him”; that is, walk in Christ In the same way that you received him. If you do this, you will be “established in your faith even as you were taught.” How then did you become a Christian? After the same fashion you should grow and mature in your Christian walk. Above, we saw that our walk does not honor the thought patterns of worldly wisdom but submits to the epistemic Lordship of Christ (i.e., his authority in the area of thought and knowledge). In this manner a person comes to faith, and in this manner the believer must continue to live and carry out his calling – even when he is concerned with scholarship, apologetics, or schooling.
This is simply reiterating the arguments from before. Again, it is the proper, sensible application of this true biblical teaching that is the problem. I’ve shown why that is, above. This stuff doesn’t teach anyone how to actually do apologetics. I have done that, however, in my analysis of how the Apostle Paul went about it, and how he applied his own teaching to his own evangelistic efforts. Paul is my model for evangelism and apologetics, not some man-made tradition of a minority within a minority of a late arrival in Christian history: presuppositionalism.
Therefore, the new man, the believer with a renewed mind that has been taught by Christ, is no more to walk in the intellectual vanity and darkness which characterizes the unbelieving world (read Eph. 4:17-21). The Christian has new commitments, new presuppositions, a new Lord, a new direction, and goal – he is a new man; and that newness is expressed in his thinking and scholarship, for (as in all other areas) Christ must have the preeminence in the realm of apologetics and evangelism (Col. 1:18b).
Yes; now how does the Christian do it? Maybe Bahnsen deals with that in another article. I shall look for it.
If the evangelist is to be compelling in his witness he must stand on a firm foundation of knowledge
Or, “the 16th way I have devised of saying the exact same thing over and over.” It’s true that repetition is the heart of learning, but the problem comes when what is repeated is either fallacious or unsupported by reason.
God tells us to apply our hearts unto His knowledge if we are to know the certainty of the words of truth (Prov. 22:17-21). It is characteristic of philosophers today that they either deny that there is absolute truth or they deny that one can be certain of knowing the truth: it is either not there, or it is unreachable. However, what God has written to us (i.e., Scripture) can “make you know the certainty of the words of truth” (vv. 20-21). The truth is accessible! However, in order to firmly grasp it one must heed the injunction of verse 17b: “apply your mind to my knowledge.” God’s knowledge is primary, and whatever man is to know can only be based upon a reception of what God has originally and ultimately known. Man must think God’s thoughts after Him, for “in thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36:9).
Yep. Christian (Protestant) philosophers today like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas, are doing a great job of that.
David’s testimony was that “The Lord my God illumines my darkness” (Ps. 18:28). Into the darkness of man’s ignorance, the ignorance which results from attempted self-sufficiency, come the words of God, bringing light and understanding (Ps. 119:130). Thus Augustine correctly said, “I believe in order to understand.” Understanding and knowledge of the truth are the promised results when man makes God’s word (reflecting God’s primary knowledge) his presuppositional starting point for all thinking. “Attend unto my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding in order that you may preserve discretion and in order that your lips may keep knowledge” (Prov. 5:1-2).
This only goes to demonstrate my long-held opinion that presuppositionalism basically boils down in the end (like many gallons of sap turning into a small amount of maple syrup) to simply preaching (and preaching to the choir at that). The “how” and “why” of belief is hardly differentiated from the “what”. The reader is going along in an article about “evangelism and apologetics” and gets less and less of either as he goes along. The very methodology which is supposedly the topic is hardly dealt with at all, or when so, in broad, fallacious terms that are easily shot down (even from Scripture alone). This is the constant frustration when dealing with the presuppositionalist mindset.
The neutralist forgets the gracious nature of his salvation
Really? I can’t wait to see why this (supposedly) is. I already mentioned that above, so obviously I am one so-called “neutralist” that hasn’t done so.
To make God’s word your presupposition, your standard, your instructor and guide, however, calls for renouncing intellectual self-sufficiency – the attitude that you are autonomous, able to attain unto genuine knowledge independent of God’s direction and standards.
Paul said that this is exactly what men can potentially do (even possibly attain salvation in God’s grace), without even the law, let alone all of God’s revelation (Rom 2). Likewise, Peter and Jesus (passages cited above) seem to think that not only knowledge but faith itself was possible without this knowledge. So if the choice is Bahnsen and James White over here and Jesus, Paul, and Peter over there, folks know where I will go.
The man who claims (or pursues) neutrality in his thought does not recognize his complete dependence upon the God of all knowledge for whatever he has come to understand about the world.
Of course: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28): and Paul was citing a pagan Greek, referring to Zeus. How did the ignorant, unregenerate pagan come up with the same knowledge that Bahnsen is now stating?
Such men give the impression (often) that they are Christians only because they, as superior intellects, have figured out or verified (to a large or significant degree) the teachings of Scripture. Instead of beginning with God’s sure word as foundational to their studies, they would have us to think that they begin with intellectual self-sufficiency and (using this as their starting-point) work up to a “rational” acceptance of Scripture.
I wish Bahnsen would, just once, name names, as to who supposedly does this (again, maybe he does in other articles; I can’t wait to find out). Certainly many liberals do. But I’m not writing about them. I’m writing about apologists who are defending historic Christianity.
While Christians may fall into an autonomous spirit while following their scholarly endeavors, still this attitude is not consistent with Christian profession and character. “The beginning of knowledge is the fear of Jehovah” (Prov. 1:7). All knowledge begins with God, and thus we who wish to have knowledge must presuppose God’s word and renounce intellectual autonomy. “Talk no more proudly: let not arrogance come from your mouth, for Jehovah is a God of knowledge” (1 Sam. 2:3).
More preaching . . . this would be a great sermon. As apologetics and an attempted, sustained piece of reasoning, it isn’t quite as profound, sad to say. And Bahnsen was a highly educated man and highly revered by Calvinists today.
Jehovah is the one who teaches man knowledge (Ps. 94:10). So whatever we have, even the knowledge which we have about the world, has been given to us from God. “What do you have that you have not received?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Why then would men pride themselves in intellectual self-sufficiency? “According as it stands written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31). Humble submission to God’s word must precede man’s every intellectual pursuit.
Amen! Preach it, brother!
Apologetics is evangelistic in nature. The apologist deals with people who have darkened minds, running from the light of God, refusing to submit to the Lord.
Yes! Okay, now tell us how to do this! Please! It’s like waiting at a restaurant for a scrumptious meal that never arrives; only the breadsticks and potato chips do; and skim milk. The main course never comes. All the other is good as far as it goes, it has value, but it ain’t the meat; it’s not the main course that everyone is waiting for. It’s all preliminaries only; wetting the (Christian intellectual) whistle without satisfying it with some sort of specific instruction as to how to go and evangelize the lost; by what method beyond the fact that a Christian is a Christian and believes Christian stuff (like we didn’t know that?) . . . but I have provided that for the reader, using the biblical models of the Apostle Paul and our Lord Jesus.
The apologist must not demonstrate the same mind-set by striving for a neutrality which in effect puts him in the same quagmire. He must aim for the conversion of the unbelieving antagonist, and thus he must discourage autonomy and encourage submissive faith.
The same tired false premises and caricatures about evidential apologists . . .
The apologist must evidence, even in his method of argumentation,
“Method”? Oh, man, he gets so close to what he needs to talk about (gettin’ “warmer”!), but will he?
that he is a new man in Christ; he uses presuppositions which are at variance with the world. He makes the word of God his starting point, knowing that it alone gives him the assured knowledge which the unbeliever cannot have while in rebellion against Christ. The non-Christian’s thinking has no firm foundation, but the Christian declares the authoritative word from God. If he did not, he could not evangelize at all: he could only pool his ignorance and speculation with the unbeliever. In doing so the Christian would be robbed of all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge which is deposited in Christ alone. Besides this, the apologist who attempts to show his intellectual self-sufficiency by moving to a position of neutrality in order that he might “prove” certain isolated truths in the Christian system forgets that grace alone has made him the Christian that he is; he should, instead, continue to think and behave in the same manner in which he received Christ (by faith, submitting to the Lordship of Christ).
Nope; same old same old . . . there’s no hope for this article. The end is near. The “argument” is seen to be completely circular and based on a wholesale caricature of non-presuppositionalist methods.
Therefore, in light of the character of evangelism, the nature of the unbeliever, the nature of the regenerated apologist, the nature of conversion, the nature of genuine knowledge and salvation, the Christian apologist ought to use a presuppositional approach in his defense of the faith. The evangelistic character of apologetics demands nothing less “But set apart Christ as lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and respect,” (1 Pet. 3:15); “we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses, destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God – we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
It’s like drinking a hundred gallons of the same flat soda pop, or peeling an onion to figure out what is the core (there is none). He just keeps repeating what all Christians who accept the inspired biblical revelation believe. Big wow. I want to know how to reach the unbeliever . . .
I find it highly ironic that the same person who in 1985 excoriated fellow Calvinists R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner for their supposed cluelessness as to the nature of presuppositionalism (see my paper on this, in response to James White, for the documentation):
[They have] oversimplified, jumbled, or handled with little more than slogans . . . painfully naive, . . . Van Til’s presuppositionalism is so badly misrepresented. . . . Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley have simply not taken the time to understand correctly what they have chosen to criticize. . . . he continues to force the good professor into the mold of his preconceptions. This is unreasonable – making a presupposition ride roughshod over the evidence!
. . . it should be the authors of this uncharitable and false representation who should be embarrassed. Anyone can knock down a straw man.
For this reviewer, the authors have not begun to interact meaningfully with presuppositionalism. . . . misconstrual of Van Til, . . . embarrassment. The argumentation is too easy to discredit, . . .
The authors admit that their traditional apologetic “is sick and ailing” (p. 12). Judging from the case made in this book, the diagnosis may be overly optimistic. . . . reliable, logically sound guidance will not be found here. . . . if you are interested in understanding or criticizing contemporary presuppositional apologetics, save your money for another day.
This same person who made these scathing criticisms (of very well-known and widely respected Calvinists!) shows not the slightest understanding of non-presuppositional apologetic method (in fact, systematically distorting same and bashing a straw man). I hope he can do better in another article. As I said, I shall look over what can be found online. I am completely underwhelmed and disappointed. I was really hoping to find something challenging.
Most of what Greg Bahnsen says that is true and helpful is already patently obvious to anyone with the slightest acquaintance with biblical teaching, a biblical, Christian worldview, and who accepts the Bible as God’s word. So it’s not bad (i.e., in its true portions), but it doesn’t teach anyone in that category anything they don’t already pretty much know. It’s literally preaching to the choir. And that is simply not apologetics; sorry.
All Bahnsen has succeeded in showing is what all dedicated, committed Christians of whatever stripe believe about the Bible and God as the font of all true knowledge and wisdom. That is Christian theology, but not Christian apologetics, let alone evangelism. I’m sure Dr. Bahnsen was a fine man, devoted to God and family and his fellow Christians. He was obviously very zealous and intelligent, but he has, in my opinion, and with all due respect, completely failed in the task of this article (by any reasonable analysis of what an article entitled “Evangelism and Apologetics” ought to set out to do).
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Summary: I “dialogue” with the late Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995) and critique his presuppositionalist views, as well as contend in favor of evidentialist apologetics.