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The Development of Van Til's Presuppositionalism in the Apologetic Practice of Greg Bahnsen

Early in the 20th century, Christian apologetics recovered its objectivity and moved a step closer to theological consistency through the work of Cornelius Van Til.

  • Christopher B. Strevel,
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Early in the 20th century, Christian apologetics recovered its objectivity and moved a step closer to theological consistency through the work of Cornelius Van Til. Building upon the anthropology of Romans 1 and the revelational epistemology of John Calvin, Van Til reminded the church that the apologetic endeavor must take the fall of man and the condemning function of natural revelation seriously. The unbeliever's fundamental problem is not ignorance but rebellion. The encounter with unbelief, therefore, must expose and challenge unbelief's rebellious presuppositions. Failure to do so obscures the clarity, necessity, and all-sufficiency of Scripture. It also denies the comprehensive Lordship of Jesus Christ, especially in the realm of knowledge. Any method of apologetics that fails to stress the absolute certainty of the Christian worldview revealed in Scripture undermines the claims of the gospel and capitulates to unbelieving logic and science, which themselves manifest the consequences of unbelief and must be reformed in the light of God's Word.

Accordingly, Van Til insisted that Christian apologetics must proceed on two fronts. Negatively -- and this was Van Til's primary though not exclusive emphasis -- it must demonstrate the utter impossibility of achieving objectivity, certainty, and truth in terms of the unbeliever's professed worldview, whatever form it may take. God has made foolish the wisdom of this world, and that foolishness has devastating consequences for man in every area, intellectually as well as spiritually. Positively, the apologist must unashamedly defend the absolute truth and certainty of the Christian worldview, for God, His revelation, and the person and work of Jesus Christ are the foundations of knowledge in every sphere. Van Til's positive, incontrovertible proof for the existence of God was that without Him, one cannot prove anything else. In fact, unbelief presupposes the existence of God and the truth of His Word, even though at every step he denies this and seeks to establish and preserve his autonomy. Unbelief must operate in God's world; it is unavoidable.

Teaching By Example
Greg Bahnsen did more than anyone else in the 20 th century to popularize, explicate, and apply Van Til's method. He recognized that Van Til's writing style was often obtuse and difficult for those not versed in the leading movements of western philosophy. Moreover, Van Til was not a systematizer, in that he did not produce a single volume in which every facet of his apologetic method, answers to critics, and exegetical foundations were carefully laid out. This was one important aspect of the life work of Greg Bahnsen. He produced numerous books, essays, taped lectures, and series in which he provided the specific exegetical foundations of what has come to be called "presuppositional apologetics." Through his public debates, he demonstrated for his students that Van Til's method was not only workable but also effective to demolish every thought raised in opposition to Jesus Christ. These are well-known aspects of his legacy and subsequent generations will come to understand and appreciate Van Til through the contributions of his gifted student. Greg Bahnsen also emphasized certain practical yet often neglected aspects or implications of presuppositional apologetics.

The Christian Apologist's Difficult Task
First, against the tendency to view presuppositional apologetics simplistically, as if it were a formula for easy apologetic success, Bahnsen reminded his students that this method actually commits its votaries to hard work and careful analysis. "Answering the fool according to his folly" requires patient study of unbelieving systems so their "foolishness" (i.e., devastating philosophical and moral consequences) may be understood and exposed. Since apologetics is essentially the confrontation of opposing systems, the believer must seek to understand the entire system espoused by the unbeliever, not simply summary sound bites. The heart of man is deceitfully wicked, and he will seek many hiding places for his unbelief that must be investigated and understood in the light of the total system of which they are a part. Only by ascertaining these can the fool be fully exposed and the claims of Christ be pressed upon him comprehensively. By his personal example and encouragement, Greg Bahnsen called his students to gain a mastery of competing systems of thought, for only thereby may he avoid thinking apologetics "easy" or "formulamatic."

The Christian Apologist's Humble Attitude
Second, Greg Bahnsen encouraged humility. One of his constant themes was that the Christian apologist must remember that he has received understanding by grace. Therefore, he does not engage in apologetics as a strident intellectual but as a humble disciple of Jesus Christ. Moreover, because grace alone given through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit effects conversion, the believer must ultimately and constantly depend upon the work of the Spirit in the unbeliever to bring him to faith in Jesus Christ. This preserves the apologist from thinking that he can "argue" the unbeliever into the kingdom of God. Since faith in Christ is the goal of the apologetic encounter, dependence upon sovereign grace keeps the Christian apologist from viewing the encounter as an opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual superiority, which he often does not possess. Heaven or hell is the issue at stake, not intellectual domination. At the same time, dependence upon the grace of the Holy Spirit does not render humble argumentation superfluous. Because "answering the fool" is a thoroughly Biblical idea, the Holy Spirit often uses the negative aspect of apologetics to bring the unbeliever to a recognition of the futility of life apart from faith in the triune God of Scripture. While presuppositional apologetics is often caricatured as obscurantist, arrogant, or hyper-intellectual, properly understood, it generates meekness, personal winsomeness, and patience in seeking to gain the unbeliever for Christ.

The Christian Apologist's Comprehensive Claim
Third, Greg Bahnsen strongly emphasized the positive aspect of Christian apologetics. The reduction of the unbeliever's worldview to absurdity clears the ground for the gospel, but it does not erect the structure. The Christian gospel must be seen in all its saving power and glory not only as the way to forgiveness of sins and the obtaining of righteousness through faith in Jesus' obedience and sacrifice, but also as the revelation of God that preserves knowledge for man, provides the foundation for human culture, and directs man to the only source of ethical guidance. This must be demonstrated by careful argumentation not simply posited as a faith claim or encouraged as a way to psychological fulfillment. Christian apologetics is not merely a bulldozer that demolishes every stronghold of unbelief; it must also function as the architect that erects the city of God firmly upon the foundation of God's revelation in Scripture. This positive aspect of apologetics is especially important in the postmodern climate, for the pluralist will join with the Christian apologist in affirming many of his criticisms of western philosophy and the presuppositional nature of human thought. If we focus only upon the negative, we have not demonstrated the truth of the Christian worldview. We may in fact confirm the radical relativist in his darkness by failing to impress upon him that not all systems of thought are bankrupt and biased; not all circles of reasoning are vicious. He may not embrace the gospel, but he must be confronted with the claim and demonstration of the claim that Christianity alone rescues man from relativism, prejudice, and chaos.

A Final Challenge
While not the only legacies of Greg Bahnsen, hard work, grace and humility, and positive demonstration are three practical distinctives of his approach to presuppositional apologetics. Defenders of presuppositionalism would do well to heed them. The work of developing a full-orbed, Biblical, and Christ-honoring apologetic is not complete. The groundwork has been set out by Van Til and enhanced by Greg Bahnsen, but it is the work of every generation to build upon the foundation of its fathers, not by rejecting their contributions because they are incomplete or imperfect, but by standing upon their shoulders and continuing the great work of presenting, defending, and persuading men that Jesus Christ is the way, truth, and life in every area of human inquiry, moral decision, and spiritual pursuit.

  • Christopher B. Strevel

Rev. Christopher B. Strevel currently pastors Covenant Presbyterian Church (RPCUS) in Buford, Georgia. He also oversees students in Bahnsen Theological Seminary specializing in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He currently resides in Dacula, Georgia, with his wife of twelve years, Elizabeth, and his three children, Christopher, Caroline, and Claire.

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