Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis by Greg L. Bahnsen

By Jim West
May 01, 2000

Pages: 764; Publisher: P&R Publishing, P.O. Box 817, Phillipsburg, New Jersey 08865-0817

I first met the late Greg L. Bahnsen in the early 1970s when he first attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Yes, it would be fair to say that Greg did not attend WTS — he invaded it. No sooner was he on the campus than his influence for Biblical Christianity as, summarized in the Reformed confessions began to be felt by faculty and student body. In those early years, Greg rarely pressed a noun against a verb without scoring invaluable debating points. At the time, little did we realize that he would go on to become not only one of the foremost Van Tilian scholars of our time, but would do so (not in the ivory castles of intellectual ease) in the trenches of spiritual combat against Diabolus’ defeated armies.

Whereas Dr. Van Til might be called the architect of presuppositionalism (John Frame has written that he is perhaps the greatest Christian thinker since Calvin), we could dub Bahnsen the George S. Fatten of Van Tilianism. Bahnsen, like no one else, takes Van Til’s apologetic into the proverbial highways and hedges. He does so in this book in good. Van Tilian style (suaviter in modo, “gentle in manner”). It is a privilege, therefore, to review his posthumously printed book. Van Til’s Apologetic.

The sub-title of this work (Readings and Analysis) summarizes Bahnsen’s format. This format was no doubt chosen because he wanted Van Til to speak for himself. When there are questions about Van Til’s meaning, his choice of an illustration or a statement that could be perceived as a contradiction, Bahnsen speedily makes the clarification. He has chosen to do this in two ways: First, by his own commentary in the main text. Second, by footnoting his comments [e.g., there are 271 footnotes in chapter five alone). For a lazy reader who is not too keen on footnotes, this approach will seem brutally academic. However, by exercising the little gray cells, we soon become attuned to his approach. Indeed, when finished reading the book, we get the impression that we have not read a book by Bahnsen at all; instead, we have experienced a tour de force in the writings of Van Til himself! If Bahnsen’s strategy was, “He (Van Til) must increase, and I must decrease,” he succeeded marvelously. This is highlighted by Bahnsen’s concluding chapter, most of which is word-for-word Van Til. As someone who knew both Van Til and Bahnsen, I found myself both pleased and torn — I wanted Greg to give his own spin, to forecast the future of Van Tilianism, or to freshen me with a post-Van Tilian truth never before realized. In short, I wanted him to stop decreasing! Instead Bahnsen concluded with a “fitting synopsis” of his book of readings and analysis — more quotes from Van Til himself. Indeed, the book is so word-for-word Van Til that there were times that I became confused if I was reading Van Til or Bahnsen. (This may have been compounded by the subtle font choices, which at times were difficult to distinguish.)

As for the content of the book itself, Bahnsen covers all of Van Til’s central motifs: presuppositionalism, transcendental argument for Christianity, creature-Creator distinction, epistemology, evidentialism, the point of contact, ontological and economical Trinity, analogical reasoning, common grace, neutrality, self-contained God, autonomy, the One and the Many, etc. A few things Bahnsen needed to amplify. For example, he deals with the One and the Many problem in a very abbreviated way (pp. 238-40). Van Til’s appeal to the Ontological and Economical Trinity as the answer was one of his greatest contributions, and yet Bahnsen gives this issue little ink. Also, Bahnsen cites Van Til as saying that in the field of ethics the choices are between theonomy or autonomy, but without noting that Van Til was not a theonomist in the “exhaustive detail” sense of the theonomy movement. Bahnsen says little about Van Til’s amillennial eschatology and its link with presuppositional apologetics (if any). He reproduces the entirety of Van Til’s wonderful pamphlet, Why I Believe in God, without criticizing one of Van Til’s closing remarks to the would-be autonomous man, “I shall not convert you at the end of my argument.” He even speaks of Van Til’s final paragraph as an “excellent closing paragraph.” Did Van Til mean to say that his argument for believing in God apart from the Holy Spirit would not convince the unbeliever, or did he not expect anyone to be convinced even on a superficial level by the cogency of his argument for the existence of God? It would have been helpful if Van Til’s definition of the Transcendental Presuppositional Argument for Christianity could have been included also in chapter seven where it is discussed, instead of on page 263, out of the context and “plugged” in a footnote. Also, Van Til’s exposition of the teachings of Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Logical Positivism (pp. 318-376) were heavy sledding even for us “bunny rabbits” who sat under him. Bahnsen failed, in my judgment, to make Van Til’s critique any clearer.

It would have been interesting if Bahnsen had documented more the relationship of Barth with Van Til. For example, while Van Til conclusively shows that with Barth there is no transition from wrath to grace, how is it that Van Til once denied that he ever called Barth a non-Christian? Did this mean that Van Til did regard Barth as a Christian? Or, did he mean that he never publicly denied that he was a Christian?

Every favorite Van Tilian illustration is in this volume, including the famous man of water standing on a ladder of water against a wall of water trying to climb out of the water (illustrating the futility of ail thought not anchored in the self-attesting Word of God). Interestingly, after showing that a strong denial of God is actually an acknowledgement of God, Bahnsen illustrates with a line from Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.” Van Til himself loved to illustrate the same point with the story of the Dutch boy in school who incessantly and without any provocation would blurt out, “My father don’t steal no ducks! My father don’t steal no ducks.”

There is much placer gold’ in Bahnsen’s work. Unlike many of Van Til’s works, very little dynamite is needed to unearth the theological gold. He shows how the transcendental presuppositional argument proves theism and so demolishes atheism that (psychologically speaking) there are no real atheists. What conditions would have to exist in order for the statement, “There is no God,” to make sense? If there is no God, then all would be chance and, thus, every fact would be brute — unintelligible. Therefore the denial of God presupposes God. As Van Til says, “Antitheism proves theism.” The only condition where the denial of the atheist would make sense and be credible is in a world created by God. Also, Bahnsen’s recitation of how Van Til handles agnosticism is classic; he crushes the head of all their serpentine arguments, while unmasking their false humility.

Other themes include Van Til’s belief that Christianity is the “only position that does not make nonsense of human experience.” Also, Christianity is not just opposed to the non-Christian doctrine of salvation, but against his entire worldview. Bahnsen argues that “apologetics requires us to remove the foundation of the unbeliever’s argument” (p. 108). All unbelievers presuppose their non-createdness and, thus, autonomy. They presuppose that the human mind can function whether God exists or not. We learn that neutrality is little more than a “colorless suit that covers a negative attitude toward God” (Van Til , p.l27). Neutrality in human relationships illustrates this hostility to God for, in human relationships, to be ignored is a deeper source of grief than to be opposed (p. 151). When believers and unbelievers agree on some moral issues, the agreement is only “incidental.” This is so even when both declare, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bahnsen tells us that “brute facts are mute facts.” Van Til reminds us that while the unbeliever can count, he cannot account for his counting (p. 407). Again, “We cannot choose epistemologies as we choose hats” — meaning that epistemology is not a matter of taste (p. 167). All the Van Tilian one-liners are here.

Throughout the volume Bahnsen allows Van Til to lecture us himself. From the outset the presuppositional apologetic is championed. We learn that a mans presuppositions color everything that he thinks and does; they are the “ultimate commitments” of a man’s heart. He tells us that Van Til believed that a presupposition “is not just any assumption in an argument, but a personal commitment that is held at the most basic level of one’s network of beliefs. Presuppositions form a wide-ranging foundational perspective (starting point) in terms of which everything else is interpreted and evaluated” (p. 2). Bahnsen reminds us that a presupposition is not a hypothesis (Francis Schaeffer), or an unproveable axiom (Gordon Clark). It is the ultimate commitment of our hearts — our preeminent pre-thinking about God and man. Bahnsen also compares Van Til’s system to other Reformed men such as R. C. Sproul, John Frame, etc.

Dr. Bahnsen also does not allow Van Til’s message to be buried under an Everest of philosophical jargon. He trumpets Van Til’s call for regeneration. He cites Van Til’s assertion that man is spiritually dead and that there are no degrees of deadness. There is, however, a “formal power of receptivity” in the mind of the unbeliever. This means that the unbeliever can weigh the claims of Christianity. However, he cannot be won without the quickening of the Holy Spirit. Van Til wrote that the “intellectual argument will not, as such, convince and convert the non-Christian.” Yet, even though the natural man is dead, he is able “intellectually to follow the argument that the Christian offers for the truth of his position.” This puts a hole in the drum of the insolent “Van Tilian” who thinks he is a true Van Tilian because he can slaughter the enemy with bare arguments.

Finally, Bahnsen in his own words, delineates why the traditional method of apologetics falters. He lists seven differences between the traditional argument and presuppositionalism. For example, he writes that the traditional method tries to show that Christianity is “highly probable” but not infallible and certain. Thus, unwittingly, the traditional argument, clashes with the transcendental argument by actually positing the “possibility of the contrary.”

The value of this work is incalculable. Bahnsen has summarized and compacted Van Til well. The greatest benefit will be to strengthen our confidence in the certainty of the Faith. Christianity is true and there is no possibility of the contrary! That was Van Til’s message and Bahnsen has made it clearer.

Topics: Apologetics, Theology

Jim West

Jim West has pastored Covenant Reformed Church in Sacramento for the last 18 years. He is currently Associate Professor of Pastoral and Systematic Theology at City Seminary in Sacramento. He has authored The Missing Clincher Argument in the Tongues Debate, The Art of Choosing Your Love, The Covenant Baptism of Infants, and Christian Courtship Versus Dating. His latest book is Drinking with Calvin and Luther!

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