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Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositional Apologetics
Or, How Van Til was out-Van Tilled by Greg Bahnsen

By The Rev. Canon Jeff Williams,
May 5, 2019

In a perfect, unfallen world, with no sin or spiritual darkness oppressing men's minds, no doubt you could preach the truth and persuade men using pure logic and common sense. But men's minds do not work properly in this sinful world; men are not unprejudiced; men do not welcome spiritual revelation where they have an ax to grind morally. Men are not mentally neutral, no matter how educated and how intellectual they may be. Mental and philosophical neutrality are a myth.

Apologetics is that branch of Christian philosophy which deals with explaining to men why you ought to be a Christian. Most apologetics literature deals with either philosophical reasons why men ought to believe in God, or attempts to prove the Bible is true using scientific or logical arguments. But, there is a relatively new approach to Christian apologetics, called "presuppositional apologetics," which recognizes that men are not mentally neutral, and therefore will not be open to clear, logical truth if it goes against their fallen, depraved natural inclinations. Presuppositional apologetics correctly realizes that you have to acknowledge that all truth comes from God and the Bible in the first place in order to think clearly and see all spiritual, mental, and moral issues as they really are.

Men's thinking is controlled by their spiritual condition, and heavily influenced by the sin and darkness of the culture. The Bible says that all men who are not converted are "spiritually dead" in sins and trespasses. They are prejudiced against spiritual and godly thinking, and will interpret, or rather misinterpret, facts accordingly.

For example, most educated Westerners immediately reject the idea of Satan and demons influencing their thinking. Can you fight an enemy whose very existence, when he is in the room with you, you deny? Jesus said, "When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart" (Mt. 13:19). Thinking and worldly wisdom are not necessarily intellectual or infallible; the Bible teaches that your thinking can be very wrong indeed. "And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know" (I Cor. 8:2). "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (I Cor. 10:12); "For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself" (Gal. 3:6).

In almost all colleges, it is very common for atheistic professors to be on a crusade to destroy the faith of those students who enter college believing the Bible. During my undergraduate days at The University of South Florida I would constantly cross swords with this type. Using all the logic and human reasoning I could muster to debate the existence of God with them, it always amazed me how closed-minded and resistant to common sense supposedly intellectual professors often were.

Then I noticed a common strain -- in the great majority of cases where I happened to know about his personal life, the more a professor was sexually impure, the more he rejected Biblical morality, the more strenuously he resisted the biblical concepts of God, heaven, hell, and judgment! Some years later a very wise pastor told me, "Your moral condition determines your ability to receive spiritual truth." Or as Professor Bahnsen wrote, "We must seriously recognize that the sinner's problem in rejecting the Bible is ethical, not intellectual." When you are living in blatant sin, of course you don't want to believe in moral standards! Of course you don't want to believe in a moral Lawgiver who will hold you accountable when you die! Such a person has a vested interest in self-deception, to convince himself that he will not be held accountable and brought into eternal judgment!

Also, several times throughout college, I noticed that when a student stopped living in sexual sin, either on purpose or because they broke up with their lover, they became much more open to the gospel. Listen to what the Bible says: "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient" (Rom. 1:28). A reprobate mind! A mind which is the turned over by God Himself to faulty thinking! A mind which has short-circuited itself! Dr. Joel McDurmon says,

In the early 20th century, a Dutch theologian named Cornelius Van Til introduced a kind of theology called presuppositionalism. He argued that no assumptions are neutral and that the human mind can comprehend reality only if proceeding from the truth of biblical revelation. In other words, it is impossible for Christians to reason with non-Christians. Presuppositionalism is a strangely postmodern theory that denies the possibility of objectivity -- though it does not deny the existence of truth, which belongs to Christians alone.

An extremely perspicacious and often-difficult-to-understand genius, Cornelius Van Til (1895--1987) lived and wrote prolifically in the early 20th century. Probably the greatest recent writer on presuppositional apologetics was Greg Bahnson, who was born one year before me (1948) and tragically passed away as a fairly young man in 1995. An incredibly erudite pastor, headmaster, seminary professor, and writer, he made Van Til's sagacious but very deep and convoluted writings understandable, and actually greatly improved on him considerably. He wrote a brilliant book entitled Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press / Covenant Media Press, 2010), 314 excellent pages.

"For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:6-7). That is, the unconverted person is unable to receive spiritual truth. That's why mere logic and common sense are not enough; and unless a morally dead person is "quickened" or made alive by the Spirit of God, he won't believe -- Jesus said, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him . . . no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father" (John 6:44, 65). That's why prayer is more powerful than wise apologetics in converting sinners. And that's precisely why so few churches do a decent job of bringing new converts into the fold: lack of prayer for success in evangelism! (Not to mention often not attempting to witness for God, or not even being interested in evangelism.) But I digress.

"This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind (Eph. 4:17) . . . "their minds were blinded" (II Cor. 3:14). Again, there is no such thing as mental or moral neutrality. People mentally paint themselves into a corner and reject truth when it is clearly presented unto them, because it offends their evil nature: "In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them" (II Cor. 4:4). "And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled" (Col. 1:21).

"Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith" (II Tim. 3:8). Even among converted people, wrong thinking can control your life, making it unstable and wicked: "A double minded man is unstable in all his ways" (James 1:8). "Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled" (Titus 1:15).

Greg Bahnsen wrote,

The very question of whether God might exist or Scripture might be true is tantamount to a denial of what Scripture says about God's inescapably clear and authoritative revelation. To attempt an apologetic that takes an (allegedly) impartial starting point and method is to radically deny the existence of the Christian God as described in His nature and activities by Scripture.

C. S. Lewis wrote,

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock . . . The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God in the dock.

Dr. Joel McDurmon on Bahnsen:

It comes to my amazement that Bahnsen completed the bulk of . . . [his] text [Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended ] at the young age of twenty-five years old. Having completed his Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees simultaneously (unheard of then and now!) at Westminster Theological Seminary, he immediately began teaching alongside veteran professors at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. To advance such a work as this one as far as he did while handling other duties, while engaging in other major theological debates, and yet maintaining something of a pastoral concern for his own words exhibits the highest of character and composure. One may (although with some reservation) compare the magnitude of this effort so early in life to Calvin's publication of the first edition of his Institutes (1536) at the age of twenty-six.

If you want to ponder how to properly defend the faith, read a real master of this subject and get a copy of Bahnsen's magnum opus, Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended, available at americanvision.org or at amazon.com.

The Rev. Jeff Williams is an associate priest at Holy Cross Anglican Cathedral (Archbishop Foley Beach's home base) east of Atlanta, GA. He is an attorney and partners with his wife at The Williams Law Office LLC in Duluth. They have seven grown children and 14 grandchildren. He holds an M.R.E., from Temple Baptist Theological Seminary; J.D. Magna Cum Laude, John Marshall Law School; Post-doctoral LLM, Woodrow Wilson Law School.

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