PA061Presbyterian Journal 44:32 (Dec. 4, 1985)
[Response to Gerstner & Sproul in defense of Van Til],
© Covenant Media Foundation.
A Critique of "Classical Apologetics"
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
Classical Apologetics, by R. C. Sproul,
John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Mich.
1984, 364 pp., $12.95 (paper). Reviewed by Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, pastor,
Covenant Community Church (OPC), Placentia, Calif. and Dean of the Newport
Intellectual respect for Biblically-defined
Christian faith is not prevalent in this age. For that reason alone Reformed
Christians should readily welcome any honest effort to clarify and strengthen
our method of defending the faith, as this book aims to do. We need each
other's help in more faithfully practicing the common task of defending the
Word of our common Lord.
All three authors of this particular effort in
apologetics are associated with the Ligonier Valley Study Center. They do not
indicate who wrote which sections of the book. Each author advocates Reformed
Christianity, and that perks our interest in their opinions on apologetical
method. Since that issue is so tied to heavy questions in the theory of
knowledge, however, it is also relevant that none of the authors has an
advanced degree in philosophy (and only Gerstner has an earned doctorate at all
- in church history).
The authors should be enthusiastically applauded
for insisting that Christian faith is capable of a reasoned defense. They will
not compromise an inch with the destructive idea that heartfelt faith is
without intellectual reasons - or the idea that to be irrational is a religious
virtue. They maintain that God commands believers to reason with unbelievers,
not simply proclaim that they must make a groundless, subjective choice. This
is a sorely needed emphasis today. We could not agree with it more. On their
chosen method of reasoning in defense of Christianity, though, we must
agree much less. We must find it, actually, contrary to good reasoning.
About half of the text of Classical
Apologetics is given to promoting and practicing natural theology, and
about half is given to opposing the presuppositional method as found
specifically in Cornelius Van Til's apologetic. As the book's subtitle
indicates, it purports to be "A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith
and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics." In the end it succeeds at
The book opens by identifying the object of its
apologetical concern: namely, "The Crisis of Secularism" (chap. 1).
The central axiom of secularism - and key challenge to Christianity in our day
- is the view that "All possible knowledge is restricted to the
temporal" (p. 7). The book's primary, self-defined task is, therefore, to
refute that view. But it does nothing like that. In fact, the question is not
even raised again in this form.
The authors rather try to deal with it by proving
the existence of "God." But given secularism's axiom, this is futile.
The only things we can know - and hence prove - are temporal in character.
Accordingly, even if the authors prove the existence of some "first
cause" (which we call "God"), it will necessarily be part of the
temporal order of nature! In short, without analyzing and refuting the
presupposition of secularism about what is knowable, the authors simply beg
the question they set out to answer.
Beyond this, there is more than a little
philosophical confusion in the authors' conception and method of proving God's
existence. For instance, to evade the charge of naturalism and the idea that
man has an unaided intrinsic ability to reach a knowledge of God, they hold
that "natural theology" (the human activity of devising proofs for
God's existence) is reflection "dependent upon divine revelation" (p.
25). But since a "divine revelation" already assumes the
existence of God, the "natural theology" of our authors depends at
the outset on what it is supposed to prove at its conclusion! The "natural
man" using his "natural reason" - for whom the proofs of natural
theology are intended - does not look upon the facts of nature as a
"divine revelation" at all.
When the authors go on and try to demonstrate
that the Bible itself endorses "natural theology," they are unable to
do so, for all the evidence they adduce pertains rather to "natural revelation."
The Psalmist and Paul say absolutely nothing about inferences and proofs
devised by human reflection. Our authors seem not to be aware that they
ambiguously switch back and forth between the two concepts of natural
revelation and natural theology. (If space permitted, we might show how their
portrayal of natural "theology" is conceptually unclear to begin
with, especially the notion of inferential reflection upon evidences which is
not a complex theoretical reasoning process: pp. 44, 46.)
A concept which has somewhere been lost
by our authors is that of man's total depravity, including the noetic effects
of sin. They tell us that rational apologetics as "pre-evangelism"
can establish the cognitive clarification of Christianity and bring the natural
man to an intellectual assent, but to take him beyond that to a
personal trust in the heart, emotions, and will is solely the work of the Holy
Spirit (pp. 21-22). Scripture teaches otherwise. The problem with fallen men is
not simply in their will and emotions. They have just as much "become vain
in their reasoning" like fools (Rom. 1:21-22). Will such "natural
men" use their "natural reason" to receive the things of the
Spirit? They cannot (1 Cor. 2:14). In terms of reasoning from nature
to God, Paul said this about the natural man: "There is none that
understands; there is none that seeks after God" (Rom. 3:11). The work of
the Holy Spirit is just as much needed to bring intellectual assent as
it is to produce emotional trust. By suggesting otherwise, our author's
conception of apologetics is untrue to their Reformed theology.
Their book on apologetics is flawed by a number
of philosophical lapses as well. When positions taken by philosophers
are represented in the book, they are too often oversimplified, jumbled, or
handled with little more than slogans (rather than analysis). Their discussion
of the (allegedly) "non-negotiable" and "virtually
universal" assumptions about logic, perception, and causality in the
knowing process (pp. 77ff.) is painfully naive, interacting with none of the
modern epistemological problems surrounding empiricism, induction, or the
foundations of science and logic. For instance, the causal principle is
"defended" against the stringent critique of Hume by replying that it
is true by definition (p. 83)! (Instead of asking whether every
"event" has a cause, they merely assure us that "every effect
has a cause" is analytical.) This does not give the reader confidence in
the book's philosophical discernment.
But for our purposes here, let us single out for
examination our authors' cosmological proof of God's existence according to the
"traditional" method of "natural theology." They reason:
"if something exists now, something exists necessarily" -
"something must have the power of being within itself" (pp. 115,
118). This line of thinking is logically fallacious. It does not follow at all
from "X exists" that "It is necessarily true that X exists"
(or that "X exists necessarily"). The reasoning is also
unintelligible. Exactly what is "the power of being"?
We get closer to understanding what the authors
are trying to argue when they claim anything that exists must have a "sufficient
reason" (p. 115). The problem is that this interpretation of their
cosmological argument contradicts an earlier statement of theirs: "we say
not that everything has an antecedent cause but that every effect has
an antecedent cause" (p. 111). After all, as we saw above, the causal
principle is simply a definitional truth! The critical question, therefore, is whether
anything that exists (or any event) is "an effect" or not! There is
not force to an argument that "God" is the "first cause"
(or "sufficient reason") for the world, unless one first proves
that the world is an "effect."
Why shouldn't the unbeliever simply take the
world as uncaused? After all, the "god" of the cosmological argument
does not need an antecedent cause; why not simply say the same of the world
itself. And even if the things or events in this world are all
"effects" (how would one prove that?), why couldn't there be an
infinite regress of purely natural causes? After all, our experience
of causation is limited to the natural world, so how can we extrapolate beyond
natural experience? The authors have no philosophically adequate answer and
become a study in arbitrariness.
The authors claim that an uncaused molecule could
not be contingent, but must exist necessarily and eternally (p. 119). But why?
This is sheer prejudice, not argument. If a molecule appears randomly and
without cause ("by chance"), there is nothing in such an event itself
which demands that the molecule necessarily appear, or that the molecule never
cease to exist.
On the other hand, if the molecule is thought of
as part of an infinite series of contingent causes, our authors commit an
elementary logical fallacy by concluding that the chain of causes
itself must also be contingent - and thus in need of a cause: "nowhere is
there to be found the power of being within the causal chain" (p. 120).
However, logicians realize that a property of something's individual parts is
not necessarily a property of the whole. For instance, imagine a 20-foot
replica of the Statue of Liberty made out of plastic legos. The parts all have
the property of weighing less than an ounce. If I argue that, therefore, the
whole Statue must weigh less than an ounce, my reasoning would be readily
dismissed as not worthy of serious attention. To argue that the parts of the
world (the causal chain) are contingent, and therefore the world itself is
contingent (in need of a causal explanation), deserves no better response.
In the last half of the book, our authors turn to
a critique of the presuppositional apologetic, especially as advanced by
Cornelius Van Til. Little of this discussion proves helpful or even relevant,
however, because Van Til's presuppositionalism is so badly misrepresented. Let
me illustrate. According to the authors, Van Til is a "fideist" and,
as such, holds that God cannot be known through nature and theistic proof, but
only by faith - a faith independent of all rational evidence (p. 27, 34, 35,
185). But Van Til himself has explicitly criticized "fideism" for
asking people to believe in their hearts what they allow to be intellectually
indefensible (Christian-Theistic Evidences, pl. 37). He has taught
that "There is objective evidence in abundance.... If the theistic proof
is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid, whatever
the attitude of those to whom it come may be" (Common Grace, p.
49). He refuses to follow Kuyper's view of the uselessness of reasoning with
the natural man (Defense of the Faith, 1st ed., p. 363). He has said
"I do not reject the theistic proofs," "historical apologetics
is absolutely necessary and indispensable," and "Christianity is the
only reasonable position to hold" (Defense of the Faith, p. 256; Introduction
to Systematic Theology, p. 146; Common Grace, p. 62).
Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley have simply not
taken the time to understand correctly what they have chosen to criticize. They
acknowledge that Van Til denies that his presuppositionalism is fideistic, but
they claim to know better (p. 1840). Indeed, the last chapters of the book go
to great lengths to explain away all of the clear evidence that can be found in
the writings of Van Til, Frame, Notaro and Bahnsen which is contrary to their
fideistic misrepresentation of presuppositionalism. I am reminded that on the
morning in 1977 after I publicly debated Sproul on apologetical method, I read
to him numerous quotations from Van Til in support of theistic proof,
evidences, and rational argumentation with the unregenerate. He was shocked to
hear that Van Til had written such things. I am shocked that, having heard, he
continues to force the good professor into the mold of his preconceptions. This
is unreasonable - making a presupposition ride roughshod over the evidence!
The authors are quite harsh about Van Til's
presuppositionalism. "The implications of presuppositionalism, in our
opinion, undermine the Christian religion implicitly" (p. 184). They end
their book by ridiculing it: "The emperor of the Land of
Presuppositionalism where Van Til, Frame, Clar, Henry, and others live, has no
clothes. Van Til is embarrassed" (p. 338). In fact, 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. They do not seem to understand
it any better than we found them to understand the philosophical issues in
constructing a theistic proof according to traditional natural theology. In
contrast to their weak effort, as well as in contrast to their misconstrual of
Van Til, presuppositional apologetics sets forth the intellectual challenge to
all unbelief that "unless [Christianity's] truth is presupposed there is
no possibility of proving anything at all" (Jerusalem and Athens,
p. 21). This is the furthest thing from fideism. It is actually very Pauline (1
We rejoice that Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley
stand with us in worshiping the Triune God. Their effort to defend our common
faith means well. But apologetics cannot be evaluated simply like an awkward
Christmas gift received from a child. It is not simply "the
thought that counts" here. The stakes are simply too high. College
students cannot expect to respond to skeptical challenges with the kind of
thinking found in this book and not suffer intellectual embarrassment. The
argumentation is too easy to discredit, totally apart from personal antipathy
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. We need not despair for a
rational defense of the historic Christian faith, however, if we but listen to
the epistemological and theological lessons of presuppositionalism.
Finally though, should you purchase a copy of
this book? If your interest is the actual practice of defending the
faith, you will be disappointed because reliable, logically sound guidance will
not be found here. Even if our interest is the intramural, specialized study of
apologetical methods, you can find more adequate examples of what this
book attempts to do. And if you are interested in understanding or criticizing
contemporary presuppositional apologetics, save your money for another day.