Greg Bahnsen on Perspectivalism

Notes I took on Greg L. Bahnsen’s first lecture in his series The Place of Evidences in Apologetics. He comments on the perspectivalism of John Frame and argues that the normative perspective must take priority over the others.

Evidences and presuppositions are like distinct but inseparable perspectives on the truth about God, but we should be cautious if we put it this way, to not relativise or obscure the distinction between facts and presuppositions. One perspectival presuppositionalist, John Frame, argued in the bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society that we need both presuppositional and evidential apologetics. From a presuppositional reformed standpoint we are not asking for presuppositions or evidences; we need both approaches. He is exactly right in that, however I think it is overstated, perhaps mistaken for him to say in the process that no one perspective has ultimate priority. John Frame says the following in his article, Epistemological Perspectives and Evangelical Apologetics, “Similarly idolatrous, in my view, is theattempt to give any one perspective a “priority” over the others, i.e. to claim thatone perspective rather than the others furnishes the “ultimate” ground for belief in something. Only God’s word furnishes such an ultimate ground, and God’s word is available to us in all three perspectives.” These three perspectives being the normative, situational and existential perspective. None of these perspectives has an ultimate priority. Upon analysis, I’m not sure that I would agree with that. I’m not even sure the author would agree with that either.

It is just because some of our beliefs do have priority that we call them “presuppositions.” I have a web of beliefs and they support one another in various ways. If we break the web at one point, it creates alterations in my belief structure elsewhere. What I’m usually going to try to do is repair my web in the fastest and most covenient way, so that when something contradicts one of my beliefs, I’m going to alter only what I have to in order to save consistency in my web. When you put it this way, you have something of a fleshed out illustration of ultimacy of beliefs. You see, one’s ultimate beliefs are those that lie closest to the center of the web which I will disturb only in the most vicious of circumstances. I’m going to hold on to those beliefs no matter what; I would have to have a whole new web if I gave up those. I believe that unbelievers have those central convictions which must be destroyed so that they can have a meaningful web, which we call a conversion. Christians have those as well, all of us do, we have our basic presuppositions. Things that are further out from the center of the web are things that I would be more willing to give up. It is just because some of our beliefs have this kind of priority and centrality that we call them “presuppositions.” I would tend to think, though there are different perspectives on God’s truth, there are also more prior, or more basic, approaches to the truth of God, nature, human personality and Scripture. I think also, that John Frame, who I quoted, ends up saying that as well because he ends up saying only God’s Word furnishes such an ultimate ground. What is of interest though is earlier in the article, John Frame had said that God’s Word was the a priori perspective taking the place of rationalism in terms of the epistemological scheme in the history of thought. Rationalism kind of corresponds with God’s Word (normative), empircism kind of corresponds with general revelation (situational) and then subjectivism kind of corresponds with the witness of God internally (existential). Given that general correlation, if God’s Word is the ultimate ground, then that means the a priori perspective, must be given some kind of ultimacy. Moreoever, later in the same article, he writes, “Without the Christian God to coordinate the law (normative), the world (situational) and the self (existential), there is little reason to suppose that the three will cohere.” But then why do we believe that they will cohere? It seems like we will have to engage some kind of meta-perspectival talk then in order to discuss and justify that conviction. Later just a couple paragraphs down from this, John Frame says,”Indeed, my position would be relativistic if it were not for my presupposition, derived from Scripture, that each perspective brings us into contact with God’s truth.” And so we have here some meta-perspectival convictions about all three perspectives cohering and bringing us into contact with God’s truth. So we ask the question, how do we justify that view of the perspectives themselves? The answer is that we get them from Scripture, which is what we call the a prior, normative perspective or what I would call our presuppositional approach as Christians. God’s revelation is prior to, more ultimate than, the facts of experience. Now I also said its inseparable from the facts of experience. I wouldn’t want to pretend that I knew it was in God’s Word without opening my eyes or ears. I certainly agree that all three perspectives are working simultaneously, but I think we do afford priority or ultimacy to our presuppositions taken from God’s Word.

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