Bahnsen’s Two-Step Approach

An excerpt from a dialogue between Dan, a critic of Van Tillian presuppositionalism, and Brian, an advocate.

Dan: Brain K’s dissembling and outright dishonesty are on full display in his post to which I am replying.

According to Brian, “Anyone who knows anything about Bahnsen knows of the ’2 step approach’” and that I am “ignorant” or “simply lying” when I say Bahnsen engages in special pleading by refusing to answer criticism of his own Christian presuppositions while he criticizes opposing presuppositions on grounds of internal inconsistencies.

Brian claims that Step 1 of the two step approach allows for an internal critique of Christianity, and Step 2 provides for an internal critique of competing worldviews. That is absolutely, positively NOT the 2-step approach, as anyone who knows anything about Bahnsen should know.

Bahnsen himself described the “two basic elements of presuppositional apologetics” in the book I reviewed above. According to Bahnsen, Step 1 is to refuse to answer any criticism of Christian presuppositions from non-Christians, and Step 2 is to criticize the non-Christian’s presuppositions. As Bahnsen states on page 75:

“In the first place the apologist does not defend the faith against the unbeliever by answering in terms of the unbeliever’s presuppositions. … On the other hand, he should put himself in his opponent’s position so that he might show the unbeliever the outcome of his apostate presuppositions.”

And again on page 75:

“So then, positively the Christian apologist presupposes the self-attesting authority and truth of Scripture, refusing to answer criticism in terms of secular premises, standards, and method; negatively, he performs an internal critique of the unbeliever’s system of thought in order to demonstrate its vanity.”

There you have two clear cases of special pleading. Yet Brian K says of me: “your continued insistence that he is guilty special pleading is based either in ignorance or deceit.”

Who is bearing false witness now Brian?

Brian: Dan, first of all, thank you for your reply. I am glad to see that we are finally discussing the *meat* of the main disagreement between us – whether or not Bahnsen and his followers are guilty of special pleading. I have read your post a couple of times now to be sure I understand your argument, and am now ready to respond.

The executive summary is this – you are misinterpreting what Bahnsen says about step 1 of the 2-step approach. Specifically, you said “Step 1 is to refuse to answer any criticism of Christian presuppositions from non-Christians.” This is absolutely NOT what Bahnsen puts forth as step 1, as can be seen in a careful reading of what Bahnsen says on page 75 of the book in question.

What Bahnsen says (and you quoted it) is as follows:

“In the first place the apologist does not defend the faith against the unbeliever by answering in terms of the unbeliever’s presuppositions”.

Please note the last 6 words in Bahnsen’s statement … “in terms of the unbeliever’s presuppositions.” Bahnsen is NOT saying that Christians should refuse to answer any criticisms of Christian presuppositions. What he IS saying is that Christians should refuse to answer these criticisms *in terms of the unbeliever’s presuppositions*. That is, he is inviting the unbeliever to perform an *internal* critique of Christianity, but is warning Christian apologists to not let the unbeliever get away with an *external* critique. You have, I believe, missed a very important qualification in what Bahnsen puts forth as step 1, and have instead taken it as a call to totally ignore any criticism whatsoever.

Let’s consider the context surrounding what you quoted to better understand just what Bahnsen means:

“In the first place the apologist does not defend the faith against the unbeliever by answering in terms of the unbeliever’s presuppositions. If he surrenders to those presuppositions he has lost case from the outset and will end up in the same position as the fool. The apologist must work within his presuppositions of the authority and truthfulness of God’s word. If he surrenders to secular assumptions he will be trapped behind enemy lines.”

Bahnsen is contrasting what the Christian should *not* do when entertaining a criticism of Christianity against what they *should* do.

We’ve already seen what Bahnsen says Christians should *not* do (you quoted it). Listen to what Bahnsen says Christians *should* do:

“The apologist must work within his presuppositions of the authority and truthfulness of God’s word.”

In other words, when the Christian is letting the unbeliever perform an internal critique of his worldview, he needs to ensure that both he and the unbeliever are operating on Christian presuppositions. If they do not, then it is no longer an internal critique (and is actually a misrepresentation of the Christian worldvew – a straw man).

An INTERNAL critique of a particular worldview operates on the terms of the worldview being criticized … and *for the sake of argument.* So, if I perform an internal critique of atheism, then I am going to let the atheist in question tell me what they believe, and I will demonstrate the inconsistencies and/or arbitrariness *if their presuppositions were true.* I will show how their presuppositions *in principle* cannot be the preconditions for the intelligibility of experience, even if they were true. In other words, I step into their worldview and argue based entirely on the presuppositions that they have shared with me. This happens to be step 2 of the 2-step – step 1 is identical, except it is Christianity that is being critiqued.

For step 1, we invite the unbeliever to take on the presuppositions of Christianity *for the sake of argument*, and show them not only that there are no inconsistencies or arbitrariness, but that these presuppositions – if true – would provide the preconditions for the intelligibility of experience.

In essence, Bahnsen is asking both sides to play fair. For example, it makes no sense to do an EXTERNAL critique of atheism, because obviously the conclusions a person reaches in an atheistic worldview most likely will not follow from Christian presuppositions. For example, an atheist will generally offer up conclusions based on a naturalistic view of the world, as there is unlikely to be any supernatural aspect to their presuppositions. A common example is this of the resurrection of Christ. The naturalist will most likely say something like “we all know that people don’t come back to life”, and so their conclusion about the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is likely to be much different from the conclusion of a Christian. The Christian’s worldview is open to the supernatural as an explanation, the atheist’s most likely is not. So, if a Christian marches into an INTERNAL critique of the atheist’s worldview sporting a God who raises people from the dead, the atheist will cry foul, as that is not part of *their* worldview.

If we are doing an internal critique of the atheist’s worldview, we cast aside our Christian presuppositions *for the sake of argument* and work with what the atheist gives to us. We say something like “well, if there is no God, then …” and show them the consequences of holding to the presuppositions they hold to.

Conversely, we ask the atheist to do us the same favor by casting aside their atheistic presuppositions *for the sake of argument* in order to work with what *we* give to them. We say something like “well, if there IS a God, then …” and show them the consequences of holding to the Christian’s presuppositions. Please notice that in this case we are, in fact, not only allowing but actually *inviting* the unbelievers to criticize our worldview. We *want* them to step into Christianity for the sake of argument. The key here is that they have to actually step *inside* our worldview and leave their unbelieving presuppositions “at the door”.

There is a really good example of this in the earlier discussion with Surrounded re: whether God can lie. Although he wasn’t saying exactly what I thought he was, I’ve gotten this argument from others in the past. I (unapologetically) appeal to scripture as a basis for “underwriting” my knowledge claims. But the clever atheist will say “well, how do you know the Bible is true?” I can explain the *mechanics* of how I know – God reveals himself in a general and special manner, and is so clear in his revelation that every single person not only knows he exists, but what kind of God he is. But ultimately my claim is that I *presuppose* scripture, in order to make everything else intelligible … everything. Now the atheist might say “but how do you know God doesn’t lie?” Well, because that’s not the God of the Bible. Stated differently – that’s not the God I presuppose. So, you can say “but if that God was a liar, then …” and I would likely agree. But that’s a problem for the person who presupposes a God who might lie – it isn’t a problem for me at all.

In an unbeliever’s “worldview”, if there even is a god, there is no guarantee that it is an honest God. The problem is, when the unbeliever asks me the question above about a god who lies, they are not doing an INTERNAL critique. They are importing some aspect of the non-Christian worldview into their “internal” critique of me, in which case it turns out to be an EXTERNAL critique. This is exactly what Bahsen is warning against, and primarily because it is so easy for Christians to fall prey to. If a Christian isn’t solid in their theology (or, if their theology is *wrong*), then they will unwittingly let those unbelieving presuppositions into the discussion. Since presuppositions do control the conclusions we come to, those unbelieving presuppositions will *necessarily* direct both the unbeliever and the Christian *away* from Christianity, and the Christian will “be trapped behind enemy lines”, as Bahnsen states elsewhere on page 75.

I realize this has been a very long response, but hopefully it clearly demonstrates just what Bahnsen means by his 2-step approach (internally critique non-belief *and* internally critique Christianity) and why his approach is not guilty of special pleading.

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