chapter by chapter review of
Van Til’s Apologetic: Reading & Analysis by Greg Bahnsen, P&R Publishing, 1998.
review of the Preface
In the Preface of Van Til’s Apologetic its author Greg Bahnsen explains the purpose of the book is to provide “…an organized digest of what Van Til taught throughout his various publications about the underlying approach to apologetics” (xxii). This sums up quite well the goal of Bahnsen’s project in this book. In later posts we will examine what Bahnsen believes is the thesis and function of the Cornelius Van Til approach to apologetics.
Why this chapter by chapter review of Van Til’s Apologetic?
Most books reviewed can be analyzed and their content summed in short order. Some books deserve a closer and slower analysis due to their subject having a sustained and wider influence. There’s no question that Van Til’s apologetic method, now referred to as Presuppositional Apologetics, has staying power among various practitioners in the field, especially in those who lean toward Reformed theology.
This book is of the sort that can give us insights into the inner workings of Presuppositionalism. Given that Bahnsen brings into one place the methodology and foundational concepts in Van Til we will take up a review of this book according to its portions. In many books their preface may not be a necessary component to its core content. Here, the Preface to Van Til’s Apologetic is a vital entré into the rest of the book, yea, even into the volume of Van Til’s writings and thought.
Disclosure: Although I have benefited much from the writings of those leading the Presuppositional Apologetic method I am not of that bent. My view, as you will see, locates more so in the Classical Apologetic approach. That said, I want to make clear that I enjoy reading and studying across a wide swath of points of view on a given topic. There is much we can learn from Van Til and Bahnsen and others in the Presuppositional method, even as there is much to learn from those using other methods in apologetics. What should really stand out as our ultimate goal in study of any subject is to gain a grasp of the subject with fairness and generosity and also with precision and thoroughness as much as we are able. This is what I trust this series of reviews will do. A strident partisan frame of mind is not helpful no matter what side one takes. We each have creedal commitments and under those we have functional commitments. We shouldn’t give those up merely for the sake of appearing “fair,” but neither should we come to our opponent’s body of thought with a battle ax.
One reason the Preface to Van Til’s Apologetic is so vital is what Bahnsen has to say about “A few things that stand in the way of their doing so” – the “their doing so” being in his words, is “to share in the philosophical profundity and transforming power of Van Til’s thought” (xvii). What are these “few things that stand in the way,” the few things that actually stand in our way given that we are in the following “generations” of those who read Van Til (xvii)?
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There’s no question that Bahnsen was an energetic follower of Van Til’s thought, at times bordering on hagiography. Yet, he begins this book with some helpful qualifiers that touch the brakes on that sort of attitude. What are things that stand in the way – according to Bahnsen – things that can be obstacles to our getting a full sense of what Van Til was setting forth in his Presuppostional method?
I’ll list them in brief and then we can consider their import one by one.
- The first obstacle is that Van Til wrote about “30 books and syllabi and over 220 articles, pamphlets and reviews” so there was a need to bring his method together in one book (xvii).
- The second obstacle is “Van Til’s style of writing” which has plenty of “generalizations and passing allusions…which most readers do not possess” (xix).
- The next obstacle is the confrontational nature of “the actual content of what Van Til has to say” (xx).
- And the final obstacle that Bahnsen presents is how Van Til employs “thinking abstractly” or “arcane parlance” or “novelty” or “his unusual use of terms” (xx).
- We need to mention what is another obstacle in reading Van Til which Bahnsen places in a Preface footnote. It’s one that can’t be ignored – Van Til’s lack of exegetical support for his method (see footnote 4, xviii).
Before we take a closer look at these obstacles I note that the remaining two thirds of the Preface are Bahnsen giving the reader insights into how to read this book and his giving an overview of its organization. This is the kind of helpful advice one often finds in a preface. The last third is also typical of most preface content in that the author mentions a few names of individuals who have been instrumental in bringing the project to completion.
obstacle of a large collection of writings
This first obstacle Bahnsen mentions is one common when scholars have left behind a large collection of materials produced over their lifetime. This is more like a challenge, even a motivation, than an obstacle. We can think of many great thinkers who have given us a large body of work – Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, Calvin, Nietzsche, Jung, Dr. Seuss, etc. (jk, you’re still with me).
This mountain of words needs to be organized and sometimes synthesized into a workable deposit of information. After a body of work has been systematized then we are likely to see a flow of secondary literature if the author or thinker has a remaining influence. This obstacle then, if we should call it that, is not insurmountable. When we move into a consideration of the next four obstacles we have before us obstacles that are very much integral to the body of literature and thus structural to the work itself. This means that these are the sort of obstacles that cannot be easily undone or brought into a fruitful state like that of the first obstacle.
obstacle of a difficult writing style
After assembling a scholar’s oeuvre comes the work of clarifying what may not be clear. Again, the secondary literature that arises later is often in the service of this task. Karl Barth, for example, is a prime example of this. On Van Til I have heard others well-read in Van Til make a similar assessment about his difficult style. Where this becomes a remaining obstacle, one that even the secondary literature cannot ameliorate, is when those “generalizations” or “vaguely worded principles” or occasions to “meander” in Van Til leave a void as to what he really meant or intended (xix). Bahnsen doesn’t hesitate to observe that “Even his key book, The Defense of the Faith, is…a crisscross pattern of topics, rather than a systematic and balanced unfolding of his apologetic approach” and in fact some topics, Bahnsen further explains, “only weakly support the central purpose of the book” (xviii).
obstacle of a confrontational manner
I won’t develop this obstacle much at this point since it will come again when Bahnsen introduces the concept of “the antithesis.” It is sufficient to note along with Bahnsen that Van Til’s influence “either reshapes the thinking of those who come within his orbit or incurs their consistent opposition” (xx). This may sound like the entitled winnings of a well-fought battle, but as we will see later there is also a negative side to this manner of doing apologetics.
obstacle of readers not learned in philosophy
In this obstacle Bahnsen explains what sounds like a repetition of the second obstacle, but with the added impediment of readers who have not been educated in “thinking abstractly and using the special concepts and vocabulary of philosophy” (xx). Yet, compounding this deficit is how Van Til employed his own “arcane parlance of a bygone generation of idealistic philosophers” (xx). This may or may not be a deficit depending on how eager the reader is to learn the remedial philosophical information needed to keep the pace. Our education system suffers greatly from a lack in this area of study. It’s also worth noting that many Christian apologists are not interested in taking up philosophical study as an aide their work. Various Presuppositional approaches have an uneven record in how they address the problem of “thinking abstractly and using…special concepts.”
obstacle of the deficit in exegetical support
Though this last obstacle is located by Bahnsen in a footnote is no less worth out attention than the others. It may in fact, be an obstacle that continues to present itself throughout the material organized by Bahnsen. We shall see and keep an eye for it as we read on. Bahnsen states the problem this way:
Van Til was particularly distressed at the end of his life that he had never produced an exegetical study showing the extensive and necessary biblical support for the presuppositional method.
Certainly Van Til did refer to Scripture and use Scripture often throughout his writings, but it was this lack of systematic and exegetical development from Scripture which Van Til and others saw as a necessary add-on to his body of work. In that same footnote Bahnsen then quotes Van Til who said,
Apparently I have given occasion for people to think that I am speculative or philosophical first and biblical afterwards…in short, I would like to be more exegetical than I have been. Dr. G. C. Berkouwer was right in pointing to my weakness on this point.
Surely, this is a deficit within the body of work produced by Van Til which remains. It cannot be undone. It is left to those who follow Van Til to fill in the exegetical support that the Presuppositional method needs. As to Bahnsen’s style of writing we can say that his prose is strait forward and generally concise. At this early stage in Van Til’s Apologetic he gives the reader confidence that he will proceed in a step by step presentation which is conducive to gaining knowledge in the Presuppositional method. Bahnsen’s goal is commendable and thus he wrote: “My hope is to make presuppositionalism readily understandable to readers who want an introductory exposure to Van Til…” (xxi).
For the next post in this series of reviews go to chapter 1, section 1.1
delight in God. again.