Greg Bahnsen is well-known within the community of presuppositional apologetics (with good reason–see his debate with prominent atheist Gordon Stein). But what is presuppositional apologetics? How is it distinctive from other approaches to defending the faith? Bahnsen seeks to answer those questions (and more) in his work, Always Ready, which offers an introduction to the realm of presuppositional apologetics.
In section one, Bahnsen introduces one of the most important aspects of the presuppositional approach: the focus upon the impossibility of epistemic neutral ground. Often, in debates over the verifiability of the faith, the believer is encouraged to set aside their neutrality. Bahnsen argues forcefully that to do so is not just to give up a great weapon in the defense of the faith; it actually damages one’s defense irreparably (3ff). Because of the impossibility of neutral ground, Bahnsen urges apologists to begin not with any supposed neutral ground, but rather with “fear of the Lord” (5). What does he mean by this? Simply put, “the Christian presupposes the truthful word o f God as his standard of truth and direction” (19, emphasis his). The Bible, in other words, is the epistemological starting point for the presuppositional apologist. Rather than starting with a defense of the Bible, the apologist is to start with the Bible as given.
Bahnsen realizes that this point is the one which will likely be most contentious for those who oppose the presuppositionalist approach and thus he turns to a defense of the use of the Bible as an epistemological foundation. He argues that “God’s word has… absolute epistemic authority and it is the necessary presupposition of all knowledge which man possesses” (29). One argument against this presupposition is that it is dogmatic. The argument is made that one cannot simply presuppose their own position to take on all comers. Against this, Bahnsen argues that the presuppositional approach is in fact dogmatic because any approach is dogmatic. On a Christian perspective, knowledge without God’s Word is impossible. Therefore, a Christian cannot set that aside as though one could become “neutral”; in doing so, one has in fact rejected the Christian worldview (31, 7-9, 34, 36). Others may object that this seems to make any knowledge of non-Christians impossible. Again, Bahnsen corrects such a view, arguing that unbelievers “cannot but have them [knowledge of God as a presupposition for knowledge] as a creature made as God’s image and living in God’s created world” (38). In other words, he holds that the unbeliever unwittingly holds to Christian presuppositions in order to have any kind of knowledge. In principle, the unbeliever can have no knowledge; in practice, by borrowing from the Christian worldview, unbelievers have knowledge (ibid). Bahnsen does present several more arguments in favor of the presuppostional perspective, including an examination of the Christian perspective of the knowledge of unbelievers and the rebellion of those without God.
Part of the distinctiveness of the presuppositional approach is that rather than approaching the defense of the faith as a cumulative case, it presents Christianity as a worldview to line up against other worldviews in conflict. The importance of this is emphasized by Bahnsen.”The Christian,” he argues, “can never be satisfied to defend [the faith]… by merely stringing together isolated evidences…. [which] will be evaluated… by the unbeliver’s tacit assumptions; his general world-and-life view will provide the context in which the evidential claim is understood and weighted. What one presupposes as to possibility will even determine how he rates ‘probability’” (67). Thus, if one offers an argument for the existence of God, that argument will be evaluated by the unbeliever within their own assumptions. According to Bahnsen, only by destroying those assumptions–only by pitting whole worldviews side-by-side and showing how they rate on coherence with reality–can one adequately do apologetics. Bahnsen then turns to an evaluation of the conditions necessary for successful apologetics (81-106). Largely, this includes God’s soverein control over all things and fleeing from sin.
Perhaps the most illuminating portion of Always Ready is its presentation of various apologetic issues and the way that presuppositional apologetics provides answers to these arguments. For example, regarding the problem of evil, the presuppositionalist approach rests upon its usefulness as a paradigm of “worldviews in conflict.” Rather than trying to provide varied theodicies, the presuppositionalist argues, as does Bahnsen, “If the Christian presupposes that God is perfectly and completely good… then he is committed to evaluating everything within his experience in light of that presupposition” (171, emphasis his). Thus, on a presuppositional approach, the premise that “God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” is a given (172). For every evil, on the Christian worldview, God has a morally sufficient reason. Only by assuming that Christianity is false can one argue that the problem of evil is truly a problem. Thus, Bahnsen reevaluates the problem of evil as a psychological problem rather than a logical problem. It is a problem of trusting in God that God has good reasons for allowing evil (173).
Challenges to miracles are also assessed in light of presuppositionalism. At the core of the presuppositianalist response is again the centralization of the conflict of worldviews. Only by assuming that miracles do not occur can one exclude them a priori from investigation. Thus, the unbeliever has begged the question and their argument is undermined (225). Bahnsen answers a number of other arguments from a presuppositional perspective, including challenges from the possibility of metaphysics, religious language, faith, and the like.
The work ends with an extended investigation of Paul’s apologetic approach in Acts 17. Bahnsen argues that Paul’s approach was thoroughly presuppositional and that it acts as a model for the presuppositional approach to apologetics.
The strengths of Always Ready are immediately apparent. Bahnsen provides a thorough look at presuppositional apologetics which presents not just the outline of the approach but also several case studies in order to help people put it into practice. The distinctiveness of presuppositional apologetics shines throughout the book
There are a few flaws in the work, however. First, as is often the case, the presuppositionalism presented in this work is thoroughly Calvinistic. Simply being Calvinistic is not a flaw, but the way that Calvinism is presented by many defenders of presuppositionalism (Bahnsen, Van Til, Frame, and the like) is essentially as the one true faith. It is Calvinism or it isn’t Christianity. Frankly, that’s a huge problem. Setting that aside, the weakest point of the work is also its most important one: namely, the presupposition of the Bible as necessary for apologetics. There are a great many who are extremely skeptical of this approach. First, there is the charge of circularity, which presuppositionalists actually accept. Their response is that all worldviews are ultimately circular.The debate remains largely unsettled, but as for this reviewer, it is hard to accept that the entire Bible is a necessary presupposition for the defense of the faith. Finally, the dim view of individual evidences as useful for defense of the faith remains a problem within the presuppositional approach.
That said, even if one rejects the possibility of presupposing the Christian worldview wholesale, one can still utilize the presuppositional approach in their apologetic. By focusing squarely upon defense of the faith as a clash of worldviews, Bahnsen has highlighted the extreme usefulness of pointing out how presuppositions can color one’s outlook on the interpretation of evidences and the investigation of other positions. Although readers may not be ready to embrace the whole of presuppositionalism, after reading Always Ready, they may be ready to integrate a number of presuppositional approaches into their apologetic.
Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).
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