Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bahnsen vs Sproul Debate

In this blog I look at the Greg Bahnsen vs RC Sproul debate. The full audio is here and the full debate transcript is here. (Both links open in a new window).

After hearing a number of presuppositionalists mention this debate I finally got around to listening to it. (The debate is from 1977 so it's been around a long time). Bahnsen and Sproul are both Reformed Christians and agreed on many things, but where they differed is their views on apologetic methodology. Bahnsen advocated Presuppositional Apologetics (PA), whereas Sproul advocated a classical approach which fits more into the category of Evidential Apologetics.

I thought that Bahnsen thoroughly won this debate, and that Sproul didn't even seem to fully understand PA in relation to the nature of ultimate standards. The things that Sproul said about the nature of certainty didn't make sense to me. He seemed to be saying that we need to build up the case for Christ using evidence and that this can bring us to high degree of probability about the truth of Scripture, but that certainty in a philosophical sense is not possible.

To quote Sproul, "I am not a skeptic with respect to meaningful knowledge and meaningful discourse.
I am a skeptic with respect to the technical concept of absolute philosophical certainty.
" (1:53:04 ~)

The second sentence above undermines the first sentence and effectively digs a hole for his position. How can he know for certain that he can have meaningful knowledge if he rejects the concept of certain knowledge?

To me it also struck me that Sproul only referred to Scripture on several occasions and even then he was only making general references rather than actually quoting passages. (He referred to Romans 1 twice and once alluded to Genesis 3 in relation to Eve and Satan).


In comparison Bahnsen quoted directly from at least 20 different Bible verses. Of course, this in itself doesn't prove anything - but to me it does reflect that Bahnsen and PA are rooted and grounded thoroughly in Scripture.

Bahnsen - The Certainty of Biblical Faith

Bahnsen spent a significant amount of time discussing the certainty of biblical faith.
(24 min ~ 26 min)

1. Apologetics is not merely persuasion
2. Apologetics is not merely dealing with probabilities
  • 1 Peter 3:15 We are to have a reasoned defense of the conviction / the hope that is within us.
  • We can know assuredly (know without any doubt whatsoever) that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. - Acts 2:36 "Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (ESV)
  • The gospel comes to us that we may "know the certainty" of our Christian teaching -
    Luke 1:4 "so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:5 "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake." (KJV) - Much / Full assurance (πληροφορίᾳ (plērophoria) = full conviction - assurance - certainty - perfect faith not marred by any doubts whatsoever.
  • Colossians 2:2 full assurance of understanding - "that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ," (ESV)
  • Hebrews 6:11 "And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end,"
  • Romans 4:19 "He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb." (ESV)
  • Romans 4:21 "fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised." (ESV)
  • Hebrews 10:22-23 "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful." (ESV)
  • We can have bold access and confident faith - Ephesians 3:12 "in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him." (ESV)
  • The confidence of the godless is like a spider's web - Job 8:14 "His confidence is severed, and his trust is a spider’s web." (ESV)
  • Proverbs 14:26 "In the fear of the LORD one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge." (ESV)
  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge - Proverbs 1:7 "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction."
  • Proverbs 22:20-21 “Have I not written to you excellent things of counsels and knowledge, that I may make you know the certainty of the words of truth, that you may answer words of truth to those who send to you?” (NKJV)
  • 1 John - written that readers might have confident knowledge of their salvation
Bahnsen - Bible Verses - What is Apologetics?
  • “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20)
  • "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceits." (Proverbs 26:4-5)
  • "in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:2) (All knowledge - not just knowledge related to spiritual things)
  • “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
  • "But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3)
  • "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," (1 Peter 3:15)

Review / The Impossibility of the Contrary

This video is an interesting review of the debate, although I don't agree with everything that this person says. He points out that when Bahnsen was asked how he knows the Bible is true he said "from the impossibility of the contrary." Bahnsen then goes on to explain this by using the analogy of logic - if you try to prove logic exists you get into circularity where you must use logic to prove that logic exists. The only way to prove that logic exists is by arguing from the impossibility of the contrary - if you abandon it you can't make sense of anything. Likewise PA proves God exists by arguing from the impossibility of the contrary. (See my blog Circular Reasoning?).

Critique of Sproul's Book "Classical Apologetics"

Here's an interesting article by Bahnsen that is also relevant. In the article Bahnsen responds to the book Classical Apologetics, by R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley. Bahnsen basically says the book is poorly written and attacking a strawman. Here's a quote from the article that sums things up well:

"We rejoice that Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley stand with us in worshiping the Triune God. Their effort to defend our common faith means well. But apologetics cannot be evaluated simply like an awkward Christmas gift received from a child. It is not simply "the thought that counts" here. The stakes are simply too high. College students cannot expect to respond to skeptical challenges with the kind of thinking found in this book and not suffer intellectual embarrassment. The argumentation is too easy to discredit, totally apart from personal antipathy to Christianity."

For Further Reading / Research:
  

16 comments:

  1. >I thought that Bahnsen thoroughly won this debate, and that Sproul didn't even seem to fully understand the presuppositional approach in relation to the nature of ultimate standards.

    This really wasn't a debate. It was much shorter than Dr. Sproul had anticipated and he never got past his introduction. I'm just finishing Gerstner, Sproul and Lindsley's critique of (mainly) Van Tillian Presuppositionalism in Classical Apologetics. Dr. Gerstner utterly decimates Van Til's view.
    I'd be happy to interact if you're interested.

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    1. Hi Trey. Thanks for your comment. Bahnsen responded to the book you mentioned here http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/PA061.htm Bahnsen called their effort an intellectual embarrassment that misrepresents presuppositionalism and attempts to knock down a strawman.

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    2. Check out some of Bahnsen's references. He says they misunderstand Van Til and call him a fiedist and Bahnsen cites pages 27, 34-35. However, on those pages the authors don't even mention Van Til and are not even talking about presuppositionalism. Only in his fourth citation, on p. 185, do they talk about Van Til. They acknowledge that Van Til rejects fideism but argue that his methodology leads to fideism. "We are aware that Van Til and others deny that they are fideistic, but while we honor their sincerity, we will try to prove their self-estimate wrong." (p.184) I feel like Bahnsen at times makes him opponent seem more extreme than they actually are. In this case he makes it sound like they don't have a clue about what Van Til believed when in fact they do.

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  2. To quote Sproul, "I am not a skeptic with respect to meaningful knowledge and meaningful discourse.
    I am a skeptic with respect to the technical concept of absolute philosophical certainty." (1:53:04 ~)

    The second sentence above undermines the first sentence and effectively digs a hole for his position. How can he know for certain that he can have meaningful knowledge if he rejects the concept of certain knowledge?

    I love presuppositional arguments and often use TAG myself, but for the life of me I don’t know why so much is made of absolute certainty in relation to knowledge by some presups. “Absolute philosophical certainty” is not a necessary prerequisite to knowledge. As far as I can tell Bahnsen and Van Till never claim this. I am only aware of Bahnsen saying that we can and ought to have certainty in relation to the content of our faith, not any knowledge. I’d be interested if someone could point out if and where he says otherwise. With that said, I don’t think even Bahnsen thought that the second part of the above quote by Sproul undermines the first. Bahnsen’s problem is that Sproul is applying the second part to God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. “How can he know for certain that he can have meaningful knowledge if he rejects the concept of certain knowledge?” The same way that you think you are having meaningful discourse on your blog. Surely you think your blog posts are meaningful, and surely it is possible that when you wrote them your eyes could possibly have deceived you, or your memory could possibly be faulty, or anything. Consequently I expect you don’t have absolute certainty about what you wrote in the above blog post but I also expect that you think it is still meaningful and part of your knowledge base. In other words, wouldn’t you be willing to say that you know that you have listened to the Bahnsen vs Sproul debate but that you don’t have certainty about it?

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    1. "I love presuppositional arguments and often use TAG myself, but for the life of me I don’t know why so much is made of absolute certainty in relation to knowledge by some presups."

      I've thought if it in terms of this: maximal consequence (spiritual death without end) requires maximal clarity (Rom 1:20 - absolute certainty/the impossibility of the contrary).

      ...

      However, you mentioned below "that the impossibility of the contrary does not get you to absolute certainty. It only gets you to certainty if you already think that we have knowledge, logic, reason, etc (aka reality is not in fact a bunch of leaky buckets). But that’s an assumption, not something we can know from the impossibility of the contrary."

      I'm inclined to disagree that "that the impossibility of the contrary does not get you to absolute certainty" (square of opposition), but I'm going to listen to the debate and consider what is said there before I speak further on that.

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  3. “In comparison Bahnsen quoted directly from at least 20 different Bible verses. Of course, this in itself doesn't prove anything - but to me it does reflect that Bahnsen and PA are rooted and grounded thoroughly in Scripture.”

    I mostly agree with this evaluation. But I must mention that another aspect of PA that has always bothered me is the lack of actual exegetical support. Bahnsen always quotes a slew of passages when he defends PA and that is because his mentor Van Til rarely quoted any. Bahnsen saw it as his task to change that. But as I look at every passage that Bahnsen quotes, it seems plain to me that someone could grant the passage and not become a presuppositionalist. With that said, I think it is wise that Bahnsen constantly quoted scripture and I think Sproul should have done it more. I do agree that this part of the debate, with Sproul’s lack of Biblical support, favors PA being the Biblical approach. Though I do think Sproul saw his opening statement as a critique of PA and not necessarily a building up of his own case.

    I think Sproul’s shining moment was when he pointed out in the Q&A section that the impossibility of the contrary does not get you to absolute certainty. It only gets you to certainty if you already think that we have knowledge, logic, reason, etc (aka reality is not in fact a bunch of leaky buckets). But that’s an assumption, not something we can know from the impossibility of the contrary. I thought for sure Bahnsen would have a response and he probably does, but for whatever reason he does not give it in the debate. This at least gives the impression that this point favored Sproul. But I would appreciate any opinions as to why Bahnsen didn’t respond and if or where he does elsewhere.

    With all that said, I think Bahnsen takes the formal part of the debate, but I lean towards Sproul during the informal part. It was meant to be more of a discussion so it’s probably improper to vote on a “winner” but those are my thoughts. Just randomly stumbled on this blog from google after searching for an mp3 of the debate and wrote more than I originally intended. Thanks for your post and ministry. peace

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    1. I mean apologetics is the reasoned defense of the faith . If one wants to leave the habitations of reason . Then he is in an unreasonable place. Contradiction land! They merely refute themselves and live inconsistent to that and even that presupposes God.

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    2. " I am only aware of Bahnsen saying that we can and ought to have certainty in relation to the content of our faith, not any knowledge."

      "But I would appreciate any opinions as to why Bahnsen didn’t respond and if or where he does elsewhere."

      The answer is the same. "Presups" don't make a lot about absolute certainty in relation to knowledge, they make a lot about absolute certainty in relation to the "PA" argument. This is where Sproul shows he is no logician by saying "impossibility of the contrary does not get you to absolute certainty". In logic, if all other things are proven to be not true ie. fallacious, contradictory, or false premise then it must hold that whatever else is left is true. So it is absolute certainty through logic.

      But of course, knowing Sproul's thinking and preferred apologetic methods we can know that the only means by which he can reach absolute certainty is through empiricism, which of course is absurd as shown through the presuppsitional argument and shows that Sproul still does not understand presuppositions and underlines why he dislikes the prepsuppositional argument.

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  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Bahnsen’s argument seems to be as follows:

    Without God, you can’t have logic or sense experience.
    But it is impossible that we do not have logic and sense experience.
    Therefore, there is a God.

    Am I understanding his argument correctly? Is this what he means when he says, “From the impossibility of the contrary, you can’t have logic, you can’t have sense experience without something that goes beyond them, a transcendental foundation”?

    If so, how does Bahnsen demonstrate his premise that “it is impossible that we do not have logic or sense perception”?

    If that is a premise, where does he get it? Is he treating logic and sense perception as axioms?

    Sproul seems to think so. When Bahnsen repeats the slogan “from the impossibility of the contrary,” Sproul calls him on it and points out: “That’s not the impossibility of the contrary… What you have done is shown us that without God, we’ve got leaky buckets… what you haven’t shown me, is you haven’t shown me why we can’t be in one big leaky bucket.”

    I appreciate that when Sproul does point to Scripture, he shows the relevance to the topic. For instance, here is Sproul at this best: "What kind of evidence does God give to the world by which He holds the world culpable? Does God just give presuppositions? Or does He raise Jesus Christ from the dead and have eyewitness testimony in a manner of history and says therefore, you know, these former days of ignorance did God overlook but now God commands all men everywhere to repent?"

    From reading the debate, I would say Sproul’s arguments are clear and superior while Bahnsen’s case is unclear and unproven.

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    1. Hi Cody. You've misunderstood Bahnsen's argument. When you put it into a syllogism and conclude 'therefore God' you're seeing God as the conclusion of the argument - but the argument is that God is the necessary starting point - and that argument is the same as the kind we see in the Bible. The biblical approach is to assume God's existence and show the folly of denying God. Sproul's arguments are unbiblical and lead to agnosticism.

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  5. Here is my perspective on how these conversations go. I'd love to hear your reaction to this summary.

    Presuppositionalist: I assert that God exists and that the existence of God is a necessary starting point of any argument.

    Classical Foundationalist: Why is the existence of God a necessary starting point of any argument?

    Presuppositionalist: Because, if God did not exist, then no argumentation would be possible.

    Classical Foundationalist: Why do you believe that argumentation is possible?

    Presuppositionalist: _______

    (This is where I haven't yet heard an answer. Instead, the presuppositionalist will usually restate his position in a new way and ignore my question.)

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    1. Do you use reason to validate argumentation?

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    2. God makes argumentation possible - and to argue against that would be absurd and self-refuting. Our own reasoning also is not to be our ultimate authority - God is - and an all powerful God enables us to know some things such that we can be certain of them.

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    3. How does God make argumentation possible?

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    4. God created all things and made them very good, including minds that can reason, logic, the uniformity of nature and other universal laws - all of which make argumentation possible. This doesn't mean that we always reason correctly, but God enables us to know some things such that we can be certain. And exactly how he does that is irrelevant to the fact that he can and does.

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  6. Im a presuppositionalist, though not of the VanTillian sort:
    ...

    Me: I assert that something exists and that reason as the laws of thought are the necessary and self-attesting starting point of thought and any argument.

    Classical Foundationalist: Why is reason a necessary starting point of any argument?

    Me: Because, without reason, then no thought or argumentation would be possible.

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