Greg Bahnsen Did Not Argue Presuppositionally

Were it not for Greg Bahnsen I would not be a presuppositionalist. Like many others, for years I thought this form of apologetics was complete nonsense. Instead of the Transcendental Argument For God, I thought it should be called the Transcendental Assertion For God. I just didn’t see it to be presenting an actual argument. It was simply claiming what it was alleging to prove.

I felt this way until the fateful day I ran across a very well kept secret. What was that? It was that Bahnsen himself actually had a real transcendental argument. The problem is, this argument isn’t how Bahnsen carried out his debates historically. He kept his real argument tightly tucked away. Why? That must remain a matter of speculation. But it seems he didn’t think this argument was as good as it was. Or perhaps he thought by using it, he would be arguing “autonomously.”

Whatever the case, for years this argument languished away. Throughout his long debating career, Bahnsen chose a different argumentative approach entirely. A method that I personally believe was not presuppositionalist at all, despite what everyone else seems to think. Bahnsen kept arguing like an evidentialist, or at best a Classical apologist. Yet the entire presuppositional world is convinced Bahnsen was showing Christianity to be true, because of the “impossibility of the contrary.” In other words, that he was indeed arguing transcendentally.

I beg to differ.

What I will do in the first part of this article, is show why this claim about the effectiveness of Bahnsen’s historical approach is mistaken. How in his Stein debate, Bahnsen didn’t argue transcendentally. Instead, he argued just as evidentially as Stein did when disagreeing with him. Sure Bahnsen focused on “worldview” instead of particular facts. He talked about the “necessary conditions” to participate in any argument. And yes he asserted that only Christianity can account for these things. But he did not successfully show this to be the case because of “the impossibility of the contrary.” Yet this is what any transcendental argument worth its salt must accomplish. It must eliminate the competition by showing that any alternative must assume the view it is seeking to deny, to even get off the ground. In the Stein debate Bahnsen did none of this.

So let’s look at the Stein debate, as a template of how Bahnsen always argued. From this it will become clear how not to argue presuppositionally. Then as a follow on to this, I will present what I consider to be Bahnsen’s real transcendental argument. This is how Bahnsen should have argued in his debates, and how we ourselves must argue now.

How Not To Argue Presuppositionally: The “Stein Debate” Bahnsen

So how did Bahnsen seek to make his case against Stein? He began his opening statement distinguishing how different kinds of evidence apply to different kinds of subject matter, and that non-neutral presuppositions influence our interpretation of all evidence. Presuppositions cannot be argued for directly, but have to be argued for transcendentally. So far so good. This is Presuppositionalism 101. Bahnsen concluded this segment by indicating the claim for which he would be arguing. That “the proof God exists is that without him it is impossible to prove anything.”

In preparation for this, Bahnsen then made another assertion. He said there are four things an atheist worldview cannot account for: Laws of Logic, The Uniformity of Nature, the Ability of Mind to Comprehend the World, and Moral Absolutes. He additionally asserted that laws of logic are immaterial and that in using laws of logic atheists “borrow from my world view.” And what justifies this additional assertion? That within a theistic world view “laws of logic make sense, that within a theistic world view there can be abstract, universal, invariant entities like laws of logic and that within a theistic world view you cannot contradict yourself because lying is contrary to God’s character.” He concludes all this by claiming that on Atheism you cannot prove anything, because you cannot account for or justify any of these things.

Whether or not this is true of atheism, at this point Bahnsen has now made three new assertions that theism can account for and justify these things itself. Once again he has not argued for any of them, and the third one is problematic. A logical contradiction is not the same thing as a lie. And even his critique of atheism is only a critique of materialistic atheism. Many atheists see mind as an emergent property. While that concept is not unproblematic, it still removes any sense of the transcendental necessity of God, for laws of logic to exist.

Kant saw laws of logic to be structures of the mind itself. Their universality is coextensive with the existence of any minds. He felt the reason the world coincided with the laws of the mind, was because the mind is partially active in creating our conscious phenomenal experience. The intention of Kant’s antinomies in the Critique of Pure Reason though, was to show that our mind’s coincidence with noumenal reality is not perfect.

It doesn’t matter whether or not Kant was right about all this. He still showed the laws of logic could potentially be explained naturalistically. One does not need to follow Kant though, to still say it may be “just that way” that the mind logically coincides with reality. Bahnsen insists saying that minds are “just that way” is insufficient. We need to actually explain why laws of logic are the way they are, and why they coincide with reality. Per usual he feels we cannot do so from the standpoint of materialistic atheism, but with theism we can.

Does Theism Explain The Laws Of Logic?

So how does Bahnsen believe theism justifies or explains the laws of logic? He believes this for three reasons once again. First, that laws of logic “reflect the thinking of God.” Second, that “they are a reflection of the way God thinks.” Lastly, they “show the way he expects us to think.” The first two reasons are almost the same thing. And while laws of logic are indeed reflections of the way God thinks, wouldn’t that just be because God also has a mind? They appear to be the laws by which any mind will think. As long as any mind exists, the laws of logic would seem to apply.

And contra Bahnsen’s saying we shouldn’t say things are “just that way,” this appears to be exactly what he is saying about the mind of God. Bahnsen himself does not escape saying things are “just that way” by appealing to God. The reason God’s mind works the way it does, is it is “just that way” for him too, with no explanation available for why it is. Why couldn’t it be “just that way” for us?

So at this point in the debate, Bahnsen has clearly not established his claims transcendentally. He has not shown that a person contradicts himself, if he thinks or says “laws of logic exist without God.” Bahnsen’s argument is only evidential.. He is arguing that theism is a better explanation than atheism, even though he is using “precondition of intelligibility” and “impossibility of the contrary” terminology while doing so.

Does Theism Explain The Uniformity Of Nature?

This part of the debate is quite thin. It is briefly discussed in Bahnsen’s second cross examination. The gist is a summary of David Hume’s claims that induction cannot be justified. Stein suggests a naturalistic explanation of uniformity, based on nature having certain properties, which results in it regularly exhibiting consistent behaviors. I suspect he got this by his reading of George H Smith’s ATHEISM: The Case Against God. During the debate, Stein mentions Smith as one of the sources of his definition of atheism.

Bahnsen critiques this view, insisting we don’t actually know nature has these consistent properties per Hume’s argument. This is true of course, but it does not prove uniformity is impossible except on theism. Once again the universe could simply be “just that way.” We could never know this for certain, but if it is “just that way,” this would still make science possible. We would be functioning on the assumption of uniformity, without being able to prove it. But if the universe “just is” uniform, then pragmatically we would still be on our way.

This possibility is all that is necessary to contradict the claim that for the universe to be uniform, theism is true because of “the impossibility of the contrary.” It is not impossible that the universe simply is “just that way.”

So Bahnsen has once again not shown that a person contradicts himself, if he thinks or says “nature is uniform without God.” Bahnsen’s argument is evidential, not transcendental. He is arguing that theism is a better explanation than atheism, even though he is using “precondition of intelligibility” and “impossibility of the contrary” terminology while doing so.

In a true transcendental argument, whether a person affirms or denies the proposition in question, they must presuppose the affirmative to do so. Laws of logic, the Uniformity of Nature, and the Ability of Mind to Comprehend the world may be simply “just that way.” We do not contradict ourselves to make such a claim, because the claim is not false due to the “impossibility of the contrary.”

Does Theism Explain Moral Absolutes?

In the Stein debate the discussion of moral absolutes had too little detail to justify any commentary here. But in Bahnsen’s moderated radio interview with George H Smith, Bahnsen did more thoroughly address this subject. Let’s take a brief look at what was said there.

Bahnsen first broaches the question by asking Smith, “Why in an atheist worldview shouldn’t a person be irrational? You might say, well, because it’s destructive of human life! But the next question is, Well, why shouldn’t I be destructive of human life if I were an atheist?” Smith replies by espousing Aristotelian Natural Law theory, saying he cares “because happiness is a goal in itself. A good life is a goal in itself.” He turns Bahnsen’s question back on him saying, “Suppose God does exist. Why should we care? Because he tells us to care? What kind of basis is this for ethics? It seems to me the Christian is caught on the horns of a dilemma…it’s wrong because God wills it to be wrong, in which case morality is reduced to a set of arbitrary decrees…or …God himself forbids certain things because they are simply wrong. In which case there’s a standard of morality apart from the will of God.”

Naturally Bahnsen will have none of this. He points out as Hume did before, “You can’t move from a description of the world that we live in and our experience, to the way things ought to be.” Bahnsen also rejects threat of punishment as a correct understanding of the Christian basis for morality saying, “This is the issue of voluntarism in theology.” He says what Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma “overlooks completely…God forbids murder because it’s contrary to his own unchanging character…I would still challenge you: why can’t another individual freely say, ‘Well, I don’t want to live for happiness…and so forth?” He concludes, “…in an atheist universe there would be no absolutes at all. It would be everyone for themselves or, as Shakespeare put it: ‘Sound and fury signifying nothing.'”

While we can easily agree with Bahnsen’s critique of Smith’s eudaimonic view, it is much less easy to agree with the obviousness of his suggested “Christian” alternative. Does the character of God really suffice as a ground for morality, because of the “impossibility of the contrary?” How can the character of God be considered good, if his character is the basis for such an assessment? Wouldn’t this be the same as saying whatever God does is right? How does this differ from saying whatever God commands is right, which Bahnsen himself earlier rejected as “voluntarism?” If God’s character can’t change, doesn’t this make him an automaton, instead of a moral agent? If he cannot do other than he does, in what sense can he still be considered praiseworthy? So once again Bahnsen has not shown that a person contradicts himself, if he thinks or says “moral absolutes exist without God.” He is arguing that theism is a better explanation than atheism, even though he is using “precondition of intelligibility” and “impossibility of the contrary” terminology while doing so.

How To Argue Presuppositionally – The “Three Appendices” Bahnsen

As we can see from the arguments reviewed so far, Bahnsen showed us how not to argue presuppositionally. So if his approach in the debate with Stein and interview with Smith are not the way to do so? How then should we argue that “the proof God exists is that without God it is impossible to prove anything?”

Fortunately the answer is found once again in the works of Bahnsen. toIt existed all along, in Bahnsen’s magnum opus. I am referring to the long lost manuscript that is now available in publication as Presuppostional Apologetics: Stated And Defended. The manuscript for this work was lost behind a filing cabinet in Bahnsen’s home for many years. He had packaged it up for the publisher but never sent it, since it fell behind this cabinet. It wasn’t until Bahnsen’s things were being moved many years after his death, that it was discovered there. And there within this lost treasure was the transcendental argument for God that Bahnsen should have been using all along.

What is interesting about this though? The argument appears in three appendices. In earlier versions of the manuscript they were part of the body of the text. For some reason in the final version, Bahnsen chose to remove them. But not fully. They still existed in his work as appendices. This suggests that Bahnsen was unsure about the legitimacy of their contents. But it also shows he was unsure they were wrong. So he chose to keep them in the book, but as an aside to the primary discussion. We also don’t know how late in his career he developed the argument found in these appendices. Be that as it may, I believe these three appendices present a true presuppositional argument. As such, they are an excellent example of how to argue presuppositionally.

Preliminary Considerations

Before expanding on the argument itself, we need to lay out some preliminary definitions and considerations:

Definition: A self-sufficient knower is a mind whose judgments are incorrigible, infallible, and never in need of verification by independent standards.

Definition: A non-autonomous thinker is a mind whose judgments are corrigible, fallible and in need of verification by independent standards.

Correlative to these definitions are some implications: There can only be one self-sufficient knower, since a plurality of such knowers would be dependent on each other to know each other’s thoughts. The denial such a knower exists is self-contradictory, since to affirm this one would need to be the self-sufficient knower. Only then would one be aware of every fact, to confirm the self-sufficient knower does not exist.

As should be obvious, only God could be the self-sufficient knower. Only he has the attributes necessary to make his knowledge truly autonomous. Any creature he creates will be limited in its knowledge by definition. So no creature could ever establish its own knowledge for itself. As the history of philosophy has shown, this is exactly what we have discovered. The deeper we’ve gone into attempting to establish our knowledge claims, the deeper we have gone into skepticism. To the point in our modern day, where we have completely given up on the hopes of philosophical modernism. The age of enlightment is over, and given way now to the age of ignorance. Postmodern philosophy is modernism’s post-mortem. Today our culture is an endless void of relativism.

Bahnsen’s Real Transcendental Argument – How To Prove That Without God It Is Impossible To Prove Anything

So let’s take a look now at the logical steps in Bahnsen’s real transcendental argument. Let’s see if it shows that our rational presuppositions entail that “without God it is impossible to prove anything.”

Here is Bahnsen’s argument:

(1) A self-sufficient knower can independently verify its own judgments
(2) There can only be one self-sufficient knower
(3) Denial the self-sufficient knower exists is self-contradictory
(4) A non-autonomous thinker cannot independently verify its own judgments
(5) Without revelation from the self-sufficient knower, a non-autonomous thinker is trapped in skepticism
(6) If knowledge is possible for a non-autonomous thinker, it requires revelation from the self-sufficient knower

As I understand it, these are the true argumentative steps behind Bahnsen’s claim that “The proof God exists is that without God it is impossible to prove anything.” This is a true transcendental argument. It shows that if someone makes any knowledge claim at all, he presupposes he has revelation from God, because there is no other way he could know it. This is true whether he affirms or denies he has such revelation, since revelation from God is a presupposition of making any affirmation or denial. In Bahnsen’s three appendices he fleshes out the supporting documentation for this argument. He also addresses it’s primary objection, and how we are to address those who disagree with it.

What we will do now is take a look at this additional data, so we can understand more fully exactly why this argument is cogent. Unlike in the Bahnsen/Stein debate, in this case Bahnsen is not just making assertions. He’s showing how for the very act of assertion itself to get off the ground, God must exist. The following sections include almost verbatum in Bahnsen’s own words what he had to say about all this. While I’ve tweaked his statements here and there for added clarity, most of the following is either quoted or paraphrased from Bahnsen’s work.

Before we proceed though, I should also add that I don’t think Bahnsen’s real transcendental argument is completely successful. After our review of the argument’s supporting particulars, I will finish by indicating what is missing to make the argument complete.

Appendix 1: The Necessity of Revelational Epistemology

In the first of Bahnsen’s three appendices to Presuppostional Apologetics: Stated And Defended, he lays out the central supporting concepts for this argument. He begins by discussing the self-sufficient knower, and what the goals are for this part of the argument. There are three: To show that a person cannot deny the existence of a “self-sufficient” knower, to show there can only be one self-sufficient knower, and to show a significant implication of this for Christian philosophers.

(1) “Self-Sufficient Knower”

Bahnsen defines a self-sufficient knower as a mind whose judgments are incorrigible, infallible, and never in need of verification by independent standards. The existence of such a knower cannot be denied, since to do so would be self-contradictory. In order to know such a being does not exist, it would be necessary to know everything: i.e. to be the self-sufficient knower. And there can be only one such being, since if there were more than one, they would each require revelation from the others in order to know everything.

But if the existence of a self-sufficient knower cannot be denied, and there can only be one, this implies there could be only three possible alternatives for human knowledge: Either Solipsism is true, in which case considerations of a self-sufficient knower are irrelevant, or complete Skepticism must be true and knowledge is not possible, or Revelational Epistemology makes knowledge possible for finite knowers such as us.

With Solipsism there must be either a “world creating mind” or an “independent world” in which the sole person is living. In the first case, the person is subject to fate, since they cannot alter reality at will. This makes the person only a “pseudo-solipsist,” since there are really two minds in this view, one that creates the world, and the other mind that experiences it. Since this is the case, mind solipsism collapses since it is really an independent world the second mind faces. But if this is truly the case, it makes the distinction between mind/no mind mute, since it entails a denial that other’s actions are really the actions of other mind’s. But this amounts to a denial of a self-sufficient knower, since it is a claim no other minds exist, which only a self-sufficient knower could know. Ultimately this leads to skepticism, because of an inability of the person to trust their own judgments, since phenomena that appear to be other minds are denied despite all appearances.

With Skepticism valid calculus and proof of premises are inconclusive. To “prove the proofs” a person would have to be the self-sufficient knower, so they could know the premises of any argument are true. Denying revelation from the self-sufficient knower leads to the inability to establish anything as true. Even so called “necessary truths” do not inform extra-mental affairs, nor are they universally agreed to. Empirical observation also won’t help, since it requires verification. Probabilistic argumentation is inherently subjective, leading to nothing more than personal opinion. “Justified true belief” is nothing more than “consensus.” Because of all this, without revelation from a self-sufficient knower, the only result is Skepticism.

That leaves Revelational Epistemology. If knowledge is possible, it requires revelation from the self-sufficient knower. All non-autonomous thinkers depend on such revelation for grounding of initial truths. The establishment of the factuality of any premise. This is required as well for non-autonomous thinkers to synthesize new knowledge. Their knowledge would only be “analogous” to the self-sufficient knower’s knowledge, since all their reasoning and knowledge would be possible only in an atmosphere of revelation.

(2) System and Truth

A non-autonamous thinker is caught between uninterpreted particulars and rootless interpretive principles. Because of natural limitations, the person is left with a choice between meaninglessness and sheer imagination. The comprehensive system of God’s mind must precede all temporal experience. Since God created both man’s mind and the facts of experience, they will be suitable for each other. Man builds further meaningful knowledge, as he reads general revelation through special revelation. The ultimate reference point of all mental judgments is the original, comprehensive system in God’s mind as creator. The creature learns God’s thoughts by submitting himself to the authoritative word of Scripture.

(3) The Epistemic Significance of the Creator-relation

Men as creatures deceive themselves into believing they are personally epistemologically autonomous. Such “autonomous knowledge” is no knowledge at all. Without the interpretation of the creator, all human “knowledge” is arbitrary guesswork. Not even a simple detail can be properly understood without revelation. God is the creator of all facts, so the reference point of all knowledge is revelation from him. To attempt an interpretation “on one’s own” is to assume erroneously the non-createdness of facts. If revelation from God is turned away from, the inevitable result is Skepticism. Either a person begins philosophizing with a God who comprehends all things, and provides a comprehensible revelation, or they begin with an incomprehensible and inapprehensible world. For the world to be known, we must consult its Creator.

Appendix 2: The Pragmatist’s Rejoinder and the Christian Alternative

In the second appendix Bahnsen addresses the main potential objection to his argument. And at this point you may be thinking about this objection too. Remember what I said earlier in response to Bahnsen’s Stein Debate reasoning? Does it really matter that we cannot establish our knowledge, as long as it works? As long as the world “just is” uniform and it “just is” the case that our minds can understand it? Why would we need revelation from God to get along? Bahnsen will now respond to this by addressing the Pragmatist, to help him understand his practical “come see come saw” attitude will not suffice.

The Pragmatist Reply

“Well my laws of logic and scientific procedure still work, even without acknowledging God, and whatever theoretical inadequacy or inner tension there may be in my thinking, it has not kept me from success yet!”

Bahnsen’s reply? There are insuperable difficulties in this “convenient relativism.”

First, future plans must rely on the truth of the uniformity of nature, not just the assumption it is. Second, Pragmatism must be set forth as one of the following: Either the person advocating it believes it is true, or that it is a moral imperative, or that it is just a personal recommendation. If the first, then it must be established as a knowledge claim. If the second, then it should be possible to examine the rational basis of the moral authority commanding it, and once again reject it if it its moral force is not based on the truth. If it is just a personal recommendation, we can simply reject it at will.

Pragmatism is a relativistic theory that presents itself as absolute. If absolute, it must then solve the dilemmas presented in Appendix 1. When unable to do so, the pragmatist will back pedal and assert that pragmatism is simply true “for him.” So once again it can be rejected, since it is nothing more than personal opinion.

Additional reasons for rejecting Pragmatism is that it rests on an experimental methodology, which benefits from “trial and error.” It’s methodology is guided by presuppositions without which the pragmatist cannot truly know that Pragmatism works. We are reduced to acting “as if” our ideas are true, while realizing we have no rational basis for believing this.

The Christian Alternative

From the Christian perspective ontology is dual level: Uncreated, autonomous, absolute and derivative, created, contingent. All facts are pre-interpreted by God and reveal him. There are no “brute,” neutral, uninterpreted, non-revelatory facts. Revelation of God is so certain men are without excuse to deny it. Unbelief is an ethical problem, not an epistemological one.

God is basic to true Christian epistemology. God is the original of all truth, creates all truth, and is the standard of truthfulness. God’s general revelation prepares man to recognize the authority of God’s self-attesting revelation. Man unquestioningly accepts God’s verbal revelation as that through which he reads general revelation.

Man can use logic and sense experience because God created man and the world to cohere. The authoritative word is not subject to verification, and does not appeal to human reason for justification. The Bible is not a short cut to truth, but the foundation of all true science and philosophy. Human reason is subject to God’s authority and word, and can only arrive at truth when in submission. Truth is conformity in thought, word, and deed to God’s mind.

Man cannot intelligibly conceive God’s non-existence. Only if the world and himself are what God’s Word says they are, can science and philosophy exist at all. Man can arrive at genuine knowledge when relying on revelation, coherence, and experience because God has made them that way, and revealed this.

God’s word is not subject to correction by experience or coherence, though interpretations might be. Logic and perception can be corrected by Scripture as well. Knowledge as “justified true belief” is knowledge grounded in God’s thoughts. The primary justification of any belief is God’s authoritative written word.

The Only Alternative

This view is the only effective alternative to autonomous reasoning in all its varieties.

Autonomous reasoning must always be engulfed in the yawning chasm of Skepticism. Revelational Epistemology provides a solid foundation for knowledge, genuine science, and legitimate philosophy. Christian epistemology provides the only basis for empirical investigation and logical thinking.

Appendix 3: The Possibility of Argument

Having cleared the wind on the primary objection to the argument, Bahnsen returns to a final question. How is argumentation between the believer and the unbeliever possible? Unless an absolute authority guarantees the truth of initial premises, nothing can be known. If the authority needs to prove its credentials, it is not the final authority. And of course, if disputants don’t use the same authority, nothing will be proven between them. Despite this fact, argumentation is still possible. This is so because all men do have knowledge of God.

Common Ground

If a person rejects revelation from God, he has no reason to believe contact with other minds on any ground is possible. Arguments between skeptics and believers are logically odd. Only if Christianity is true, is there any common ground at all to argue by. Any argumentation must presuppose the truth of Christianity and revelation from God. The only point of contact between them is what the skeptic is attempting to disprove!

Any knowledge an unbeliever has is dependant on revelation from God despite his denials. The non-Christian recognizes the necessity of common presuppositions for argumentation, but he cannot be assured of them on his autonomous basis, nor can he supply unquestionable axioms to use.

The Christian can rely on the revelation given to all men, which provides the necessary point of contact between them. The believer must not carry on the dispute on the unbeliever’s terms. There is no common ground there. There is antithesis in the outward profession, but all men know God in their “heart of hearts.” Argument is possible only on this level.

It is because the unbeliever is not true to his profession, but draws upon his “ignorant” belief, that the believer and the unbeliever can argue. The Christian apologist should lay bare the character of those presuppositions the non-Christian uses, demonstrating their self-vitiating quality, and the suppressed beliefs that make his arguing possible at all. Autonomous reasoning with it’s inherent irrationalism makes common ground and argument impossible.

What Is Missing From Bahnsen’s Real Transcendental Argument?

At this point one final thing remains. To show what is missing from Bahnsen’s real transcendental argument. Based on everything you’ve read so far, hasn’t he made his case? Hasn’t he indeed proven that “without God it is impossible to prove anything?” He has, but that is not quite enough. All the argument has shown so far is that if we are to have knowledge, revelation from God is necessary. It hasn’t shown us that we actually do have knowledge. Only if that’s the case, is the existence of God himself proven. Couldn’t it just be the case that we don’t have revelation from God, and so we’re unfortunately trapped in Skepticism after all?

This is the missing piece in Bahnsen’s argument. To show that we do indeed have knowledge. Since we could only have this knowledge through revelation from God, showing we do have knowledge also proves that God does exist. So how do we know that we do have knowledge? Because we know the conclusion of the argument is sound. If we didn’t have revelation from God, we couldn’t know anything, let alone that this argument is conclusive. But we do know it’s sound. We actually contradict ourselves if we say, “I know I don’t know anything.” Even saying, “It could be true I don’t know anything” contradicts the claim to know this.

So the transcendental proof God exists is indeed because without him it is impossible to know anything. But additional to this is the fact we know this is true. This entails we do have revelation from God. And because we have revelation from God, God actually does exist, since he has given it.

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