Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen

Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg Bahnsen (edited by Robert R. Booth) is an apologetics textbook composed of the works of the late Greg Bahnsen – a notable advocate of presuppositional apologetics. This book represents Bahnsen’s apologetic, presented in two main sections, as described by the editor:
The first section, previously published as a syllabus, provides a step-by-step explanation of key issues in Christian apologetics and establishes the biblical support for the presuppositional method. The second section of this volume offers further practical advice on how to approach an apologetic situation and provides specific answers to particular apologetic questions… (x)
The first half of the book is composed of brief two- or three-page chapters presenting key ideas foundational to Bahnsen’s presuppositional approach to apologetics. The author begins by making a case that one’s epistemology cannon be “neutral,” that is, what Bahnsen calls a “nobody knows yet” attitude. (4) But he argues that this dishonors Christ: “One must be presuppositionally committed to Christ in the world of thought (rather than neutral) and firmly tied down to the faith which he has been taught, or else the persuasive argumentation of secular thought will delude him.” (5) Bahnsen argues that this neutral stance in approaching Christian defense is immoral, because, for one thing, it does not begin with the knowledge of God: “Those who follow the intellectual principle of neutrality and the epistemological method of unbelieving scholarship do not honor the sovereign Lordship of God as they should; as a result their reasoning is made vain.” (8) Because no man is able to serve two lords, “…neutrality is nothing short of immorality.” (9)

Bahnsen says, “philosophy which does not presuppose God’s word is a vain deception,” (23) and so the Christian has two options: “either ground all your thought in Christ’s word and thereby gain the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, or follow the dictates of autonomous thought and thereby be deluded and robbed of a genuine knowledge of the truth.” (24) For some, Bahnsen’s style may come across as dogmatic and absolutistic, which he points out: “It appears dogmatic and absolutistic because, it is dogmatic and absolutistic. The Christian should not be ashamed of this fact.” (31) But, Bahsen says, the claim that all thought requires the presupposition of Christ’s word, “is not arrogant, unreasoning, or unfounded.” (31) Bahnsen stresses an approach of humble boldness throughout the book.

Bahnsen continues to lay out the foundations of the presuppositional apologetic, citing Van Til and Calvin not a few times. After explaining the concept of neutrality, the author moves on to a discussion of “common ground” between believer and unbeliever. He explains:
The foregoing considerations not only establish that there is no neutral ground between the believers and unbelievers, but also that there is ever present common ground between the believer and the unbeliever. What must be kept in mind is that this common ground is God’s ground. All men have in common the world created by God, controlled by God, and constantly revealing God. In this case, any area of life or any fact can be used as a point of contact. The denial of neutrality secures, rather than destroys, commonality. (43)
So Bahnsen seeks to put aside the idea that there is no commonality between believer and unbeliever, and spells out where he sees the differences are. He discusses the idea of autonomy:
The non-Christian thinks that his thinking process is normal. He thinks that his mind is the final court of appeal in all matters of knowledge. He takes himself to be the reference point for all interpretation of the facts. That is, he is epistemologically become a law unto himself: autonomous. (46)
The apologist, on Bahnsen’s view, must take aim and challenge this autonomy: “He must challenge the unbeliever’s presuppositions, asking whether knowledge is even possible, given the non-Christian’s assumptions and perspective.” (55) Bahnsen cites Proverbs 26:4-5 to establish an apologetic approach in dealing with unbelievers: “The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility.” (61) Bahnsen lays out a two-part approach:
…the presuppositional procedure has been seen to involve two steps: 1) an internal critique of the unbeliever’s system, demonstrating that his outlook is a foolish destruction of knowledge, and 2) a humble yet bold presentation of the reason for the hope in us, communicated in terms of the believer’s presuppositional commitment to God’s true word. (69)
In short, Bahnsen says the scriptural approach is to show the unbeliever that his view is actually impossible, while showing that Christianity is the only view that, if presupposed, allows for rationality and intelligibility of the world: “This is what must be pointed out, thus witnessing that the contrary of Christianity is impossible, while on the other hand the dogmas of the faith provide the necessary pre-conditions of intelligibility and meaning. Such is the Scriptural perspective and method.” (75) Any other method of doing apologetics will fall short:  “…the apologist cannot attempt to persuade the unbeliever by using the unbeliever’s style of thought or standards of evidence and truth, etc. Such a procedure simply will not woo him to Christ but encourage him to assert his own autonomous authority over Christ’s claims.” (100) Furthermore, on Bahnsen’s view it is either presuppositionalism or laying aside the authority of Christ:
Apologists are prohibited from using a non-presuppositional method in defending the faith under the excuse that thereby truth might abound. The obedient Christian does not lay aside the authority of Christ in the realm in order to argue on the basis of autonomous ‘scholarship.’ To do so would be to operate with a lie (namely, the Satanic life that knowledge can be determined apart from God: Gen 3:5; cf. Rom. 1:25) in order to defend the truth! The faithful witness to Christ will not behave as an unbeliever (denying Christ’s Lordship in order to make him a believer. (101)
Bahnsen also describes a transcendental mode of argumentation:
In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything. (122)
Most readers will likely be drawn mainly to Bahnsen’s exposition of a presuppositional approach to apologetics (section one). However, section two provides a rich resource of practical answers to the most common attacks on Christianity. (It is also less controversial.) So Bahnsen moves away from theory in the first half to practice in the second half: “Training manuals on fire-fighting do not put out fires; the actual fighting of fires does. And when all is said and done, it is not the theory of apologetics which defends the faith and stops the mouth of critics. Only the practice of apologetics can do that.” (152)
What follows in section two includes answers in dealing with the problem of evil, knowledge of the “supernatural,” the problem of faith, the problem of religious language, and the problem of miracles. This second half of the book is a worthwhile read in dealing with these perennial challenges, as Bahnsen’s perspective is certainly helpful in each area. This review, however, will not expand any further on the content in the second half.

In conclusion, Greg Bahnsen’s Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is one of the main texts one will turn to when studying presuppositional apologetics. Straight-forward and to the point, Always Ready is an easier introduction to presuppositionalism than Van Til. While some readers will part ways with the author’s methodology, they have much to appreciate from Bahnsen’s respect for scripture, his Christ-centered focus, and emphasis on humble boldness.

* Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2006).


J. K. Jones said...

Always Ready is a great book.

No one beats Bahnsen for tearing down the arguments given by the other side.

For a contemporary example, that may be a little more humble in its approach, try The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

D. A. N. said...

Always Ready is absolutely a great start and very informative book. If you wish to more delving into this type of apologetic and want to read Bahnsen's Life magnum opus then read Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis

Love the work. Nice recommendation

Mike Felker said...

Brian, do you think that Bahnsen's approach can be harmonized with an evidentialist approach? I'm of the opinion that both tactics can be utilized, but I have yet to come up with a consistent approach because Bahnsen seems to be so at odds with evidentialist apologetics.

Brian said...

Apologetic Front:

I am not sure how Bahnsen would answer that. But one thing that comes to mind for me is that there is a difference between an evidentialist approach and the use of evidences. I think Bahnsen would welcome the use of evidences. But it seems to me that he would reject any approach that doesn't presuppose God and instead uses evidences to "get there." Maybe in that regard he would use them as "verification" of what has already been assumed - but not as a step to God as conclusion.

I disagree with Bahnsen where he says that this is the prescribed Biblical approach and the only legitimate approach.

Boa and Bowman's Faith Has Its Reasons has an integrative model at the end in which they argue that contributions from the different methodologies can be effectively used together.

The Goins said...

Hey Brian! Thanks for the review. I'd only hope that you were slightly more critical. The most desired form of criticism from you came in the comment right before mine:

"I disagree with Bahnsen where he says that this is the prescribed Biblical approach and the only legitimate approach. "

I wish you would have integrated this line of criticism into your review, and show where you depart and where you agree. It would have helped if you would have made it more "Books & Culture"-ish.

Also a Philosophy professor at my university wrote two essays on Presuppositionalism and Bahnsen. They're academic papers but I think you would enjoy it.

Primer On Presuppositionalism

Bahnsen on Self-Deception

Brian said...

Thanks for your feedback and the links, The Goins.

There are a number of concerns I have with Bahnsen's approach, but I was really trying (as a personal goal) to remain neutral and try my best to properly portray Bahnsen's perspective in a way that is fair and accurate. I felt that trying to do that would just add to the noise.

My disagreements at this point would not be developed enough to critique it to my satisfaction; that is, this is an ongoing debate and I am not knowledgable enough to feel I fully understand the view first. Not that I am anti-presuppositionalism - I am open to it and willing to be persuaded. But right now my biggest "blocks" are that I don't think it is prescribed as "the" scriptural approach - and I don't think it is the only God-honoring approach.

It bugs me that people either accept all it too quickly or reject it all too quickly.

D. A. N. said...


>>do you think that Bahnsen's approach can be harmonized with an evidentialist approach?

It depends on the audience really. You could not be effective using Presupps on, let's say, a catholic. Another method would have to be used. This approach is for the nonbelievers.

Sye said "Indeed I do not decry evidence. In fact the presuppositionalist is more of an evidentialist than the evidentialist. We say that all evidence is evidence of God, even one's very ability to reason about evidence."

The problem is giving swine the pearls. Presupps allow people to understand and evaluate their worldview that is hostile to God instead of evaluate evidence for the existence God.

Where I see the problem with an evidentialist apologetic style is that you are forcing your audience to place themselves in the judges seat and place God on trial! That is certainly not a Biblical form of apologetic by any stretch of the imagination. Remember that we are the ones on trial as criminals and presupps keeps God in that Judge's seat.

As CS Lewis said " The ancient man approached God as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock...The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God in the Dock."

Bahnsen said "If the apologist treats the starting point of knowledge as something other then reverence for God, then unconditional submission to the unsurpassed greatness of God's wisdom at the end of his argumentation does not really make sense. There would always be something greater then God's wisdom-namely, the supposed wisdom of one's intellectual starting point. The word of God would necessarily (logically, if not personally) remain subordinate to the autonomous,final standard."

The Presuppositional apologetic approach is the only approach that makes sense of Proverbs 26:4-5 or Matthew 7:6. Telling an Atheist to "try Jesus" is not Biblical, asking nonbelievers to evaluate God instead of evaluate self isn't either. Presuppositional apologetics is extremely Biblical.

Wait! After writing all of this I just realized who The Apologetic Front is now, he is no stranger to any of this. Love your work TAF. What I said still stands even if it were for an different audience.

Carry on

Ex N1hilo said...

Bahnsen did his doctoral dissertation on self-deception. He summarized his view on the subject in the following essay:

It's fascinating reading. Definitely not a subject that is commonly addressed in philosophy nor in theology. Nor is it something most Christians would think of as relevent to apologetics or evangelism. But it's an important subject.

I see that Joel Garver has posted a link to his critique of Bahnsen's position. I'll have to check it out.

Davitor said...

What's even more fascinating is how apologist can conceive of a God who is all powerful yet always need human reason for defending.

D. A. N. said...


Please, by all means, ask God for answers. If asked, then I am merely giving an explanation for my faith as instructed.

Please understand this very important point:

Reason is not the platform (precondition) for faith, but vice versa.

Davitor said...

If you can you have faith without a brain then I would agree. All your doing is using your brain to conceive ideas that you call faith to perceive the unknown. What is fascinating is how apologist can't see this.

D. A. N. said...


>>All your doing is using your brain to conceive ideas that you call faith to perceive the unknown.

Do you know for certain we use our brains to conceive ideas that we call faith to perceive the unknown? If so, how are you certain of this?

Davitor said...

Can you have faith without a brain?

D. A. N. said...

>>Can you have faith without a brain?

Good question, can you? If not, how are you certain of that?

Now, does the laws of logic exist outside of the human mind? If not, how are you certain of that? If so, how do you account for the universal, abstract, invariant laws of logic, on what basis do you proceed with the assumption that they will not change, and how is it possible to know anything for certain according to YOUR worldview?

Davitor said...

I am not the one here trying to prove certainty, you are, and so it is up to you prove it, and so will you never find rest in proving what can not be proven without a mind to testify for it.
But as for me I can rest assured knowing fully that before I was born none of this was of any importance to me, and so I let it be.

D. A. N. said...

I will try it again, I wrote a response but might of forgotten to hit post so it didn't go through...grrr.


>>I am not the one here trying to prove certainty, you are, and so it is up to you prove it,

It is impossible to know anything absent certainty. I'll show you what I mean: tell me one thing that you know absent certainty?

>> and so will you never find rest in proving what can not be proven without a mind to testify for it.

Your comment reveals a belief in the existence of knowledge, which is certain by definition. How is this possible in an "atheistic" worldview?

>>But as for me I can rest assured knowing fully that before I was born none of this was of any importance to me, and so I let it be.

Ignoratio elenchi?

Some definitions for you:

knowledge (n)--the fact or state of knowing; the perception of fact or truth; clear and certain mental apprehension.

know (v)--1. To perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty. 2. To be cognizant or aware of.

It is the Christian position that God has revealed Himself to all mankind so that we can know for certain who He is. Those who deny His existence are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness to avoid accountability to God. It is the ultimate act of rebellion against Him and reveals the professing atheist's contempt toward God.

The only possible way that we can know anything for certain is by Divine revelation from One who knows everything. It is the Christian position that God has revealed some things to us so that we can be certain of them.

Davitor said...

Thanks Dan, may you never find rest in going against God's will to try to prove to the one's He has chosen not to reveal.

D. A. N. said...


>>...may you never find rest in going against God's will to try to prove to the one's He has chosen not to reveal.

That is just it, God has indeed already revealed Himself to you. So there is nothing that I am doing that is against God's will here.

It's nothing new for people to deny the existence of God or to create false gods to worship so that they can be their own god. It's one of the oldest sins in the book.

I'm sure that if an "atheist" wanted to, they could surrender to God, confess and repent of their sins, put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and receive a full pardon by God. They just don't want to. Takes us right back to Proverbs 14:2, doesn't it.

Davitor said...

Thanks Dan, I'm not an atheist, and all I am trying to point to here, is to show the logical dilemma Armenian's face were we have a God who is dependent on man's choice and a Calvinist where the chosen one's can only find themselves going against God's will. Hence you will never end your debating. But then again what makes a good story is an evil villain.
God Bless you Dan.

D. A. N. said...


>>Thanks Dan, I'm not an atheist,

You just answer questions like one, so I don't believe you...yet.

You said "All your doing is using your brain to conceive ideas that you call faith to perceive the unknown."

Perceive the unknown? If you were a Christian you would not say such nonsense. So who are you trying to convince here. Me? You? Maybe you're a deist. Let me ask you directly as to avoid this smoke screen. Are you a Christian? If not what is your brief worldview? Just to get me on the same page.

>>and all I am trying to point to here, is to show the logical dilemma Armenian's face were we have a God who is dependent on man's choice

Who said I was an armenian? Who are you arguing with? Or is this one big Ignoratio elenchi?

>>and a Calvinist where the chosen one's can only find themselves going against God's will.

Huh? Ignoratio elenchi still? Is Calvinism wrong? If one is chosen then they would not go against God's will. Agree?

>>Hence you will never end your debating.

Nope, not when souls are at stake here.

"If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. If they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees. Let no one go there unwarned and unprayed for." C.H. Spurgeon

No I will never stop correcting your errors about God and hope you will repent and trust in Christ with your entire life, your ONLY salvation. This may be your last day here after all.

>>But then again what makes a good story is an evil villain.

Your motives are evil if this merely is entertainment for you.

>>God Bless you Dan.

He has in glorious ways, has He blessed you with Salvation? If so, how are you certain of that?

Davitor said...

Thanks Dan, I don't think you follow what I am saying, but that's OK it really does not bother me at all.
May you find the peace that I have found in God that goes beyond any need for a reward.

Peace be with you, Dan.

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