Pushing the Antithesis, The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, ed. Gary DeMar, Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007, 285 pp.
There is much that is good in this book, though it is marred by significant use of and dependence on the “transcendental argument.”
Pushing the Antithesis begins with a foreword by its editor, Gary DeMar. There DeMar defines “push the antithesis” to mean “force the unbeliever to live consistently with his rationalistic and materialist presuppositions that underlie and seemingly support his worldview.” (p. xv) I assume, however, that he really means to extend this to all sorts of non-Christian worldviews; not just rationalistic and materialistic ones. Against these there are various arguments, not the least of which is Alvin Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.” But not all non-Christians are modernists holding to rationalistic, materialistic, and naturalistic views. Among the millennial generation post-modernism is more prominent than modernism. And in addition to the various philosophical views, there are religious ones like Islam, Bahai, and Oneness Pentecostalism. It is not as clear how members of these religions could not live consistently with the presuppositions of their worldviews while the Christian can.
Note: While the chapters of the book are said to be based on Bahnsen’s lectures, he is sometimes quoted in the second person. But since DeMar is said to be the editor and not the author, for simplicity sake in the following review my comments will refer to the chapter material as Bahnsen’s.
Chapter 1: The Myth of Neutrality
Bahnsen rejects trying to prove the existence of God with any supposedly neutral, independent, or unbiased reasons. To do so, he says, would fall victim to “the myth of neutrality.”
He then gives something of the “Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God,” though he doesn’t here provide that name for it. He writes, “If you don’t start with God as your basic assumption, you can’t prove anything. The assumption of God’s existence is essential to all reasoning.” (p. 7) While this argument (or rather, assertion) purports to be “starting with God” it seems that its own validity itself has become Bahnsen’s starting point. That is, Bahnsen is not starting with God’s existence but is starting with an appeal to the logical necessity of God’s existence. Bahnsen here (and Van Til) would do well to heed Van Til’s words later quoted, “It is Christ as God who speaks in the Bible. Therefore the Bible does not appeal to human reason as ultimate in order to justify what it says.” (p. 37) And Bahnsen’s words also, “When Genesis opens with the simple declaration ‘In the beginning God,’ it does not argue for God’s existence, it assumes and asserts it.” (p. 49)
Getting back to the myth of neutrality, he rightly points out the inherently hostile nature of the world to Christianity. This is shown in the world’s assumption of Evolution and Deconstructionism, and is spread with subliminal messages in the classroom. Fallen man is not neutral but is “actively hostile to God.” (p. 14) The attempt at neutrality is the sinner’s resort in seeking to escape the truths of the Scriptures.
On a practical level, to avoid neutrality, Bahnsen writes, “While in college, Christians should not be passive sponges merely absorbing the material, but instead be active filters sorting out the issues through a biblical grid.” (p. 16)
Chapter 2: Destroying Philosophical Fortresses
In this chapter Bahnsen contends that unbelievers are “not neutral” and believers “should not be neutral.” Because of the effects of sin, the mind of man has a distorted and destructive orientation.
A distinction is made between the knowledge of believers and unbelievers. Bahnsen explains, “We are not saying unbelievers ‘know nothing.’ We are saying that they do not know anything ‘truly,’ because they do not recognize the most fundamental reality: All facts are God-created facts.” (p. 32) But is not the lack of knowing anything ‘truly’ equivalent to not knowing anything at all? Can one know something falsely?
The “myth of neutrality,” Bahnsen well explains, is repudiated by the Scriptural teaching that one is either a slave to Christ or a slave to the world. And there should be no division in life between religious and non-religious realms.
Chapter 3: Defining Worldviews
There is an interesting comment here that “Many Christians are so anticipating the Lord’s ‘snatching’ them out of this world by an ‘any moment’ Rapture that they see no sense in the long term implications of worldview analysis.” (p. 42) Backing this up, it is true that most discussions of worldview by Christians have occurred within the context of the Reformed faith, not in the context of dispensationalism.
A definition of worldview is settled upon as “a network of presuppositions (which are not verified by the procedures of natural science) regarding reality (metaphysics), knowing (epistemology), and conduct (ethics) in terms of which every element of human experience is related and interpreted.” (p. 42-43) I rather prefer James Orr’s definition as “the widest view which the mind can take of things in the effort to grasp them together as a whole from the standpoint of some particular philosophy or theology.” That is, while a worldview is a network it is comprised not only of presuppositions but of all of one’s beliefs, presupposed or deduced. Closer in line with this idea is Bahnsen’s definition of a network as “a complex web of numerous beliefs organized in an interlocking, independent, self-contained truth system.” (p. 43) And he well explains that Christian faith is “a coherent system of interlocking truth claims.” (p. 43)
Chapter 4: Worldview Features
The point is made that while the Christian is “not on neutral ground with the unbeliever” there is a “common ground” or a “point of contact.” Bahnsen says, “You need to understand this point of contact in order to engage him properly.” (p. 58) Five pages later we finally learn “we do have a point of contact with the unbeliever: he is the image of God and sees the glory of God in nature so that he knows deep down in his heart-of-hearts that God exists.” (p. 63) While there the point of contact is that all men are the image of God, it is soon thereafter said to be that “we both live in God’s world.”
I loved Bahnsen’s comment on the absurdity of naturalism: “When asked if something can miraculously pop into being from nothing in an instant, the non-Christian vigorously responds in the negative. Instant miracles are out of the question! But when asked if something can come out of nothing if given several billion years, the non-Christian confidently responds in the affirmative.” (p. 61) While I did find this a comical insight, more capable naturalists might be less self-contradictory in holding that the world has always existed.
Perhaps it is the transcendental argument that is returned to when it is said “The unbeliever will not be able rationally to account for the orderly universe which he experiences, since he is committed to the ultimacy of chance.” (p. 63) This is an improvement because an argument is offered rather than just an assertion. But again, while this may be a good argument against naturalism, not all unbelievers are committed to the ultimacy of chance. Fatalistic Islam is even more deterministic than Calvinism.
Chapter 5: Alternative Worldviews
It is explained that “Presuppositional Apologetics does not require you to be an expert in the entirety of human knowledge” but you only need to “dig down to the basic presuppositions men hold, showing that their most basic assumptions cannot support their worldview.” (p. 75)
Here the book expands to discuss the worldviews of Hindusim, Behaviorism, Marxism, and Existentialism. These worldviews are said to have “worldview cores” of monism, dualism, atomism, pragmatism, and skepticism.
The first three of these cores (monism, dualism, and atomism) are said to be directly related to the problem of “the one and the many” or “universals and particulars.” (p. 81) This is said to be the question, “Which is more basic: The one (universals) or the many (particulars)?” (p. 82) This dilemma is then said to be solved by the doctrine of the Trinity that in God there is an equal ultimacy of “Oneness and Manyness.” (p. 82) But this seems confused to me because in philosophy the discussion is about many particular chairs and the one ideal chair, where with the Trinity it is not many persons and one ideal person, but many (three) persons and one essence.
Under the “worldview cores” Bahnsen has New Age, Christian Science, and Hare Krishna as forms of monism; Platonism as a form of Dualism; materialism, behaviorism, and Marxism as forms of Atomism; and Pragmatism and Skepticism as their own forms. I had expected the author to show how each of these worldview cores failed to solve the problem of the one and many, but this information was not forthcoming.
Chapter 6: Worldviews in Collision
Here is made the “bold claim” that “faith is the necessary foundation or framework for rationality and understanding.” (p. 96) Since “faith” and “rationality” have had various meanings in the history of thought, one would hope that Bahnsen would define the terms as he uses them and then explain this bold claim. Rather, he simply moves on to a Biblical history of the antithesis doctrine and recommends that you “prod the unbeliever” by asserting that “he cannot explain being good, helping a stranger, having meaning, and so forth, in his worldview.” (p. 102)
The transcendental “argument” is re-asserted: “only on the basis of your Christian worldview can anyone make sense of reality, logic, and morality.” (p. 104) But while I can understand how one might show the Christian view makes sense of these things, and how one might show a particular non-believing worldview fails to be consistent or have explanatory power, I am unable to understand how this is supposed to show that Christianity is the “only” successful worldview. What feature (or features) is unique to Christianity and gives it success over Islam, Oneness Pentecostalism, or Arminianism?
Chapter 7: Overcoming Metaphysical Bias
Bahnsen contends that “the proper approach to apologetics is by means of worldview analysis.” (p. 110) The question is asked “how can you intelligibly establish your view of reality, knowledge, or ethics?” (p. 111) Logical positivists and other post-enlightenment thinkers are anti-metaphysical. But Christians reject this stance because they see God as foundational to all reality. Metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are “bound up together in a mutually self-supporting system.” (p. 118) Yet “epistemology necessarily presupposes metaphysics.” (p. 119) Those who claim to be anti-metaphysical are found to have a “hidden metaphysical program” all along. The claim is made that Christianity alone (in God) has a “self-validating, self-attesting authority.” Finally there is a discussion of “circular reasoning” before returning to criticism of the anti-metaphysical position. This chapter, like all of the others so far except Chapter 6 is primarily focused on opposing logical positivism / modernism.
Chapter 8: Approaching the Unbeliever
Here is an explanation of Proverbs 26:4-5 (“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”) as it applies to apologetics. “You must present the truth, and, negatively, you must warn of folly.” (p. 142) Though both steps are necessary “you do not have to use them in this order.”
He returns again to the transcendental argument in saying, “The proof of Christianity is the impossibility of the contrary.” This phrase seems to be sort of a mistaken use of what in philosophy is commonly called “proof by contradiction.” That is, the falsity of a contrary does not prove the truth of anything, since both a proposition and a contrary to it can be false. But the falsity of the contradictory does necessarily implies the truth of the original proposition. While not explained here, it seems that Bahnsen and Van Til believe that the “impossibility of the contrary” is sufficient since they limit the possibilities to two; the Christian view and the non-Christian view. But this seems inappropriate to me as the only thing that all of the various non-Christian views have in common is that they are not Christian. A very clear definition of Christianity is needed. If, for example, Arminianism is not Christianity but a heresy as the Synod of Dordt maintained, but Arminianism holds to the doctrine of the Trinity, is it not the Trinity but the sovereignty of God that is the important feature of Christianity in view? Or is it both the Trinity and the sovereignty of God that are necessary since some religions like Islam might accept the latter but not the former?
The chapter returns to some excellent criticisms of the naturalistic, materialistic worldview but again overlooks other non-Christian views.
Chapter 9: The Problem of Moral Absolutes
There is a “dangerous problem today,” “the denial of absolute moral standards.” (p. 167) After providing a plethora of quotes from moral relativists, he notes that “those who deny moral absolutes have at least moral absolute: ‘You should not believe there are moral absolutes.’” (p. 172) Thus a contradiction is found in their view. Therefore “moral absolutes are inescapable.”
Chapter 10: The Uniformity of Nature
“Science is absolutely dependent upon uniformity.” (p. 187) But the unbeliever has a problem in accounting for the uniformity of nature. Bahnsen claims, “only the Christian worldview can account for it.” (p. 189) But while it is clear that “The uniformity of nature is perfectly compatible with the Christian worldview” there is no argument as to why no other worldview—again say Islam—is not compatible, which is necessary to establish that only Christianity can account for it. This same logical error or lack of argument runs throughout the book.
Chapter 11: The Problem of Universals
The whole problem with the “transcendental argument” becomes apparent when one of its advocates, like here in this chapter, also advocates “engaging in an internal critique of [the unbeliever’s] worldview.” If the transcendental argument were sufficient, this internal critique would be unnecessary. If all non-Christian views are proven false by the “impossibility of the contrary” then there would be no need to critique each of them separately. The apologist wouldn’t even need to the know the first thing about the unbeliever’s view.
It is asserted that universals and the laws of logic cannot be accounted for on “the unbelieving worldview.” A critique of empiricism is given, but this hardly suffices for all non-Christian worldviews.
Chapter 12: Personal Freedom and Dignity
This chapter has returned to putting an “s” on the end of “non-christian worldviews” but no new arguments are given.
Though Bahnsen argues for the “impossibility of the contrary” and “not the superiority of Christianity” I believe there is another option. That is, not only is Christianity superior to other worldviews, it is the only known worldview that is consistent and liveable. And we can only chose from live options. Each non-Christian worldview must be critiqued individually.