Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Greg L. Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics- Stated and Defended

The story behind this book is quite remarkable. This book was supposed to be published many years ago. Dr. Greg Bahnsen wrote the draft and had even edited the galley proofs. The publisher was prepared to move ahead with publication pending final editing but then the edited galley proofs were inexplicably lost. Dr. Bahnsen was very busy at the time, the book could not be found and eventually the publisher could wait no longer and destroyed the plates. Normally that would be the end of the story. In this case, however, after Dr. Bahnsen’s death the envelope containing the edited proofs was found. It had fallen behind a cabinet in Dr. Bahnsen’s office and lay there undisturbed for years. Fortunately, the technological developments of the past couple of decades made it possible to proceed with publication even though the original plates had been destroyed. The proofs were scanned and converted to a publication format that was then edited by Joel McDurmon. So, we finally have the ability to read this “lost” book by Dr. Bahnsen.

The book is organized into two parts with three appendices that provide additional information that Bahnsen had edited out but that McDurmon has chosen to include as supplementary material. The first part is an explanation and defense of the presuppositional approach to apologetics in the tradition of Van Til. It is one of the best condensed yet thorough explanations of the Van Tillian approach that I can recall reading. It is certainly much more accessible than the writings of Van Til himself. Those familiar with Bahnsen and Van Til will likely find much of this material to be a review but people not familiar with Van Til or Bahnsen who are looking for a readable, but not overly simplistic, explanation of the how and why of their approach will benefit greatly from this book.

In part 1 Bahnsen explains why a presuppositional approach is required, gives biblical support for it, and discusses the method itself. As I said earlier, Dr. Bahnsen has taken the best of Van Til and organized it in a consistently logical expression that is accessible to non-scholars who are interested in philosophical apologetics. There are some areas where an understanding of basic principals of logic would be helpful to the reader but even these areas should be understandable with careful reading.

The highlight of part 1, however, was Bahnsen’s argument in the 3rd chapter that epistemology is not primary over metaphysics and that the two cannot be divorced from one another. He argues that in constructing any theory of knowledge a person must assume certain metaphysical realities. Bahnsen then argues that since the sovereign God has revealed Himself to mankind an acceptance of proper (Christian) metaphysical and epistemological systems is fundamentally an issue of ethics. He says, “All men begin with genuine knowledge- true belief about the state of affairs and justification for that belief- and then proceed to use or misuse it. The beginning of philosophy is not a subjectivist guessing game but a matter of ethics.” The third chapter therefore provides the connection that is the theological and philosophical basis for the primacy of the transcendental argument as opposed to other forms of apologetics in his view.

The second part of the book is a critique of non-Van Tillian apologetic systems that claim to be presuppositional. In order to do this he specifically analyzes the apologetic methods of three other Reformed apologists and comments on a fourth that are often considered presuppositional. He examines in detail the systems of Gordon H. Clark, Edward J. Carnell, and Francis Schaeffer and then comments briefly on Ronald Nash. Bahnsen concludes that each of these other systems falls short of the standards of Biblical presuppositionalism and should ultimately be considered weakened forms of natural theology.

The criticisms that he offers are strongly colored by the influence of Van Til and in some cases they are a bit overreaching. He begins each critique by providing a number of quotes from each scholar that he agrees with and then he goes on to demonstrate how he thinks they were inconsistent in their commitment to those principals. In the cases of Clark and Schaeffer in particular, he ignores clarifying statements or definitions that would resolve the issues that he is pointing out. In other cases he is criticizing them for approaches that he himself uses even in this very book. Although there are cases where I think his analysis of these other apologists is unfair, I also think that he touches on legitimate weaknesses in the systems of each of these other men. He capably summarizes some of the best arguments against each those systems. Part 2 is particularly valuable in helping the reader to understand the Van Tillian perspective on other systems of Reformed apologetics. It is also a good starting point for critical examination of those systems if the reader is willing to evaluate the criticisms along with the respective responses to those criticisms made by those being criticized.

Overall this is a good book and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in apologetics in general or presuppositional apologetics in particular. Dr. Bahnsen has smoothed some of the rough edges off of Van Til and given us a clear and coherent description and defense of his system along with a Van Tillian perspective on other presuppositional approaches. Bahnsen was a first rate scholar, apologist, and writer. This book is no exception and although it was published years after it was written its material remains relevant. I expect that it will be a blessing and a resource to the Church for years to come.

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