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Van Til's Apologetic: Readings & Analysis by Greg L. Bahnsen
(Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998) [hardback, 763 pages]

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
[Published in the Reformation and Revival Journal, Summer 1999]

Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA 

Is Van Til's apologetic a simplistic Bible-pressupposing fundamentalism or a subtle import of neo-orthodoxy? Is it an unjustified leap of faith or a circular, Calvinistic cul-de-sac? This review will not answer these questions. But the book reviewed may. It is unfortunate that Van Til, a major name in the galaxy of apologetic stars, is so diversely understood among evangelical apologists. At the 50th Anniversary of the Evangelical Theological Society Meeting in Orlando (Nov. 1998), the Evangelical Philosophical Society hosted a panel discussion on apologetic methodology. The participants were Gary Habermas (evidenitalist, i.e., begin with the Resurrection), William Craig (classical approach, i.e., begin with the cosmological argument for God's existence), Paul Feinberg (cumulative case, i.e., there is no best place to start), and Richard Pratt (taking John Frame's place as the presuppositional representative in the Van Tillian tradition). Unfortunately, no one was able to represent the "new reformed epistemology" of Alvin Plantinga, et al. (However, each of these approaches will be represented in a new Zondervan "five views" book soon to be released, edited by Steve Cowan, my old buddy from USM [!].) I regret that John Robbins (the intellectual clone of Gordon Clark's variety of presuppositionalism) was left out altogether.

Let me assure the reader that each of the panelists would have benefitted greatly if they had read Van Til's Apologetic before this discussion. Perhaps they would not have generally misrepresented Van Til's variety of presuppositionalism as fideism (no rational basis for faith) -- if they had read that "Christianity is the only rational faith!" (116). Or that "Christianity is objectively valid and that it is the only rational position for man to hold" (74). Or it alone "can ultimately make any sense of 'science,' logic, experience, reason, self-consciousness, morality, etc. (701). Or that the unbeliever "ought to be refuted by a reasoned argument, instead of by ridicule and assumption" (74). Or "there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism" (78). Or "Faith is not blind faith....Christianity can be shown to be, not 'just as good as' or even 'better than' the non-Christian position, but the only position that does not make nonsense of human experience" (75). Or "Hence Warfield was quite right in maintaining that Christianity is objectively defensible" (42). So far from being blind leap is Van Til's approach, that he would call the above three panelists a "second and less consistent class of fidests" (77)!

To date, Bahnsen certainly provides the definitive presentation of Van Til's apologetic. Dr. Bahnsen completed this 763 page tome shortly before his death in December of 1995. Published under the oversight of the Van Til Committee, the Foreword says the Committee "believed [Bahnsen] eminently, even uniquely, qualified among Dr. Van Til's former students for the task" (xv). In this book, "Three feet of material have been reduced to less than three inches" (698). A visible feature of the book is typographical. Bahnsens' explanations and analysis are presented in the standard font (Times Roman-like), while Van Til's words are in a distinct script (an Arial-like typeface). Extensive footnotes (not endnotes!) are ever present in Bahnsen's informed, analytic style. The arrangement is nine chapters with two levels of subdivision in each. He moves from an introduction to the epistemology, psychology, and philosophy of apologetics, with a concluding summary on how to defend the faith. The first chapter includes a very informative biography of Van Til, explaining his unusual ascendancy to his life-long teaching post at Westminster Theological Seminary. And the book concludes with an extensive bibliography of Van Til's writings and helpful name and subject indices.

Among others, a central need for Bahnsen's analysis arises from Van Til's writing style: "Van Til's own terminology arises from the arcane parlance of a bygone generation of idealistical philosophy (e.g., 'principle of individuation, 'limiting concept,' 'concrete universal')" (xx). Bahnsen was trained both under Van Til at Westminster and at the other end of the philosophical spectrum in the linguistic analysis tradition at the University of Southern California. While Van Til is abundantly conversant with post-Kantian idealism -- through Bahnsen's presentation he gains the clarity of expression the analytic emphasis in philosophy offers. At the same time, both Van Til and Bahnsen breathe the air of the confessional Reformation theology (both were OPC ministers). Van Til is a Dutchman wearing wooden shoes under the tutorship of old Princeton. He received his graduate training in the educational tradition of old Princeton (Alexander, Hodge, Warfield, and Machen), but his thought is painted with the colors of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. In his apologetics he was "standing on the shoulders of Warfield and Kuyper" and building "on the main thrust of their thought..."(611). "I have tried to use elements both of Kuyper's and of Warfield's thinking" (597). Bahnsen is more than perceptive when he says, "A person who can explain the ways in which Van Til agreed and disagreed with both Warfield and Kuyper, is a person who understands presuppositional apologetics" (597).

Thus, Bahnsen presents Van Til's legacy as a philosophical vindication of consistent Christianity (the Reformed faith). It is the only rational philosophy (Warfield) and is the complete antithesis to all non-Christianity worldviews (Kuyper). This is done by means of the theistic transcendental argument: Christianity is true because it alone accounts for the preconditions of intelligibility. To illustrate, suppose an atheist comes to town and preaches that Christianity is irrational. After common grace communion with ginger ale and ginger snaps, Van Til would ask the atheist to account for the standards of rationality on the basis of the atheist's own view of reality. The atheist, though he would not like to say it this way, must say that his legislative rational standards come from an utterly irrational (chasmos) universe. If the atheist is correct about reality, rationality came from total irrationality by the predestination of blind chance. Now the atheist seeks to use what an irrational universe miscarried ("reason"), as the Judge of what can be in reality. Van Til thus teaches us that all forms of anti-Christianity fail to account for the very pre-conditions of reasonable interchange. Perhaps even more importantly, he teaches us that we know this by grace alone.