FRAME AND BAHNSEN ON VAN TIL’S APOLOGETIC: A COMPARISON
By: Thomas F. Booher
John Frame and Greg Bahnsen are two of the most well-known advocates of Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics. Both studied under Van Til and are especially qualified to write on his apologetic method. What follows will be a brief examination of both Frame and Bahnsen’s analysis of Van Til’s apologetic. It will become evident that, on the whole, Bahnsen is in greater agreement with Van Til’s thought than Frame is, though both men would claim to accept the heart of Van Til’s methodology. Frame and Bahnsen will be discussed together, examining their interaction with Van Til’s teaching in several key areas, highlighting both their agreements and disagreements.
For Cornelius Van Til, an apologetic dialogue between believer and unbeliever is always a mighty clash of two opposing worldviews. It is necessary for the Christian apologist to present and defend Christianity in toto. The Christian belief system must be presupposed and defended in this manner because the unbeliever will always reason according to his unbelieving presuppositions. To offer the unbeliever the Christian faith piece by piece to be scrutinized by the would-be autonomous man is to fail to attack the heart of the issue between the regenerate and unregenerate, namely the opposing worldview itself. Further, Van Til argued that Christianity must be received, not as disconnected fragments, but as a seamless whole. The Christian faith is comprehensive, to be received as that which gives meaning to all things and explains all things. It is inappropriate, impossible even, to break up the unity of the message and present it as if each doctrine were not dependent upon the other. With this, Bahnsen wholly agrees: “The Christian faith should not be defended one isolated belief after another isolated belief – as though a ‘block house’ were being built up, one block at a time… its epistemology should be defended in terms of its metaphysics and ethics (including anthropology and soteriology), and its metaphysics and ethics (including anthropology and soteriology) should be defended in terms of its epistemology.” While Van Til would argue that the Christian apologist must always go beyond the use of historical evidences and present a transcendental argument (which may incorporate historical evidences), Frame is not so rigid. Frame’s reasoning is that some unbelievers may receive arguments based on evidence, which perhaps could build on the Christian faith in something of a piece by piece fashion, whereas Van Til says unbelievers will always suppress this kind of argument. Frame counters that unbelievers may also resist the transcendental argument. Therefore, apologetics should be person variable, though Frame has much appreciation for the transcendental argument itself. Van Til also made it clear that arguing from a general theism to the God of Scriptures was essentially arguing with a blockhouse methodology. Firstly, without the God of Scriptures, you cannot argue at all. Secondly, if you start with a general theism, or try to prove a general theism, you will never arrive to the God of the Bible, since He is the necessary being that makes possible all predication and understanding. This would, in essence, give up the possibility of using the transcendental method. Bahnsen would concur with van Til, but Frame questions just how much of the God of Scriptures must be presented before one can argue for the God of Scripture. After all, nobody knows everything about God, nor will anyone ever know God exhaustively. Along these lines Frame argues that we can appreciate the arguments of Plato and others for at least touching on some true things of God, and therefore the Christian apologist can and should supplement the non-Christian’s generally theistic philosophy.
Van Til would not argue apart from his transcendental apologetic because of his understanding of the antithesis between believer and unbeliever. The natural man embraces brute fact in metaphysics, and claims his mind is autonomous, the source of truth and knowledge. If this is the case, presenting evidence of itself without challenging the underlying presuppositions will always lead to an interpretation of the evidence that leaves intact the autonomy of man. Both Bahnsen and Van Til would urge that allowing the unbeliever to pick apart evidences and question God’s revelation at one point enables him to question God’s Word and the evidences at every point. Because the unbeliever’s presuppositions have not first been addressed, the unbeliever will simply interpret along his man-centered lines and inevitably conclude that God and/or His word are irrational, and therefore unbelievable. Bahnsen says we cannot grant autonomy to the unbeliever at the outset, and those that do so delude themselves if they think at some point during the argumentation process they will renounce their autonomy. Frame agrees that the presuppositions underlying one’s worldview must be addressed, but he is not as stringent in the application of this belief. Perhaps God is working in someone’s heart so that they are already questioning these foundations, or perhaps God will overturn this worldview apart from directly attacking it by means of the evidence presented. Frame claims Van Til argues, in his more extreme antithetical formulations, that there is no common ground between believer and unbeliever. Frame agrees that is true in principle, but since no unbeliever consistently lives with this principle (drawing on Van Til’s teaching of the rational-irrational tension within the unbeliever) there is some common ground. Nonetheless, Frame affirms that the Christian must argue according to Christian presuppositions and convictions. Bahnsen and Van Til might counter that Frame is trying to have it both ways.
Part of the Christian presupposition and conviction for Frame, Bahnsen, and Van Til is that all men know God exists. While unbelievers suppress this, they still know it. In fact, they could not suppress the truth unless they knew the truth. This is why unbelievers can and must be expected to presuppose the existence of God and His revelation before they have, in a real sense, even come to believe in God. All three men confess that this concept is hard to express because of the contradictory nature of fallen man in his mind, heart, and will. Yet natural revelation reveals God, and those who reject Him do so against better knowledge. God, by His very nature, must be presupposed. It is a sin not to, and utterly irrational. Frame argues that even if it is impossible for man to presuppose God in this manner, man is still required to do so in the same way sinners must repent though they cannot do so apart from God’s grace. The need then, particularly for Bahnsen and Van Til (but also Frame), is to make the unbeliever more epistemologically self-aware. That is, the unbeliever needs to be shown, whether he is fully conscious of it or not, that he interprets reality apart from revelation, totally by his own thinking. Yet, at the same time, deep down, because he is in fact made in the image of God, the unbeliever knows that God exists and assumes the intelligibility of the universe. This confused state, though hard to express, must be presented to the unbeliever, so that he can be made more aware of the tension and contradiction in his own thought.
This mixed status of the believer both knowing and not knowing God is puzzling, and Frame believes Van Til’s expressions on the matter were less than satisfactory. He claims that Van Til was extreme at times in his formulations of his antithesis, to the point that Van Til would say that unbelievers know nothing at all and can have no agreement with the believer. Bahnsen disagrees with Frame here, saying that Frame misunderstands Van Til and is taking him out of context, not allowing Van Til’s nuance to interpret his own corpus of writing. However, Bahnsen does affirm with Van Til that from the ultimate point of view, unbelievers (because they operate under their false presuppositions) do in fact always come to false conclusions regarding the study of nature. So unbelievers can gain rational and empirical knowledge because they indeed do know God, but because they reject this knowledge of God they cannot adequately account for what they know in terms of their own epistemology.
It follows for Bahnsen and Van Til that the antithesis between believer and unbeliever must be presented explicitly in an apologetic dialogue. There is a common knowledge between believer and unbeliever; in one sense, it is the whole world. But in another sense there is no common knowledge because of the antithesis, because of the different worldview and presuppositions that the believer and unbeliever bring to the table. The unbeliever has self, namely his fallen reason as the interpreter, whereas the Christian submits his reason to God’s revelation in both Scripture and nature to interpret all things. Therefore, it is the common ground of interpretation that the presuppositionalist rejects. It is not absolutely clear, but Frame would probably agree with this in the main, but say that the unbeliever, because deep down he really does know God, may actually reason that God does exist, though in his heart hate the God that he, in some sense, rationally acknowledges. Thus, Frame and Bahnsen wrestle somewhat contrarily with the unbeliever’s mixed status of both knowing and not knowing God.
Frame is also fond of referring to Van Til as having a multiperspectival outlook in his epistemology: “[Van Til’s Apologetic] seeks a balance between facts and laws, a balance between revelation in word, act, and divine presence. He coordinates revelation from and about God, the world, and the self, and he finds them interdependent.” Support for this would be found in the Trinity; no one person acts apart from the other, and each is wholly God and within each other. Frame connects this line of thought to some of Van Til’s teaching on God being both one person and three persons in two different senses. Because the Trinity is perspectival (they each constitute a whole), so is the world. The world then can be seen from various perspectives. Each perspective is itself a whole, but together they would (perhaps?) produce a fuller flavor of the whole. Each perspective is interdependent upon the other, and it seems for Frame they help shed light on one another when analyzed from each perspective. Therefore, he argues for Van Til’s teaching on the four attributes of revelation: necessity, authority, clarity, and sufficiency, each of which implies the other and thus the whole can be seen from any of the four. This kind of thinking leads Frame to see the mind, will, and emotions intimately connected. On this basis he rejects the primacy of the intellect, something which Van Til affirmed. Therefore, it is likely that Frame is developing Van Til’s thought on his own in this area, in a way that Van Til may not have agreed with, at least in total.
Another area where there is clear difference between Bahnsen and Frame is on the use of a direct argument. The transcendental argument for Bahnsen and Van Til is said to be indirect, and indirect argumentation is said to be the only proper way to engage in apologetics. Frame disagrees. He says that the transcendental argument can be a direct argument, if it merely has different phraseology. Frame affirms wholeheartedly Van Til’s apologetic method of itself, but does not wish to limit apologetics to this method. He agrees with Van Til and Bahnsen that you can take the unbeliever at any point in his thought and reduce his argument to an absurdity by demonstrating the rationalist-irrationalist contradiction inherent in all unbelieving propositions. The unbeliever’s position attempts to apply abstract laws to irrational facts, and necessarily so since the biblical God is rejected and He is essential to make sense out of anything. However, Frame claims Van Til presents his method as if it is incredibly simple, but he counters that in reality it is not since it must be demonstrated that universal intelligibility presupposes God. Such a grand claim means that the apologist must hypothetically prove everything! For example, if a Muslim agrees that universal intelligibility must be personal but reject that it must be Trinitarian, a Van Tillian will have to demonstrate that intelligibility requires an equal ultimacy between the one and the many, and that equal ultimacy presupposes the ontological Trinity. Frame also offers the example of one who agrees that the God of love must be presupposed, but takes issue with the concept of God’s justice as defined in Scripture. God’s justice according to Scripture would then have to be defended and shown to be necessary in order for the world to be intelligible (or the doctrine of inerrancy must be demonstrated). Since one can argue either directly or indirectly, positively or negatively, to support the belief that universal intelligibility presupposes God, Van Til’s method does allow for direct apologetics, according to Frame. Bahnsen claims that Frame is mistaken to say that Van Til’s method is really not distinct from direct arguments. Van Til, in a way similar to Kant, says you can start anywhere, with anything, and ask the question, “What are the necessary conditions (additional beliefs) to make any concept or perception intelligible.” Thus, the transcendental argument does not begin with a particular starting point, but asks what makes any starting point intelligible. Direct inductive and deductive arguments begin with a premise, and if any premise in the chain is broken, the whole argument is broken. However, for the transcendental method this is not so. The transcendental argument is “proving” God by arguing the impossibility of the contrary. The argument is not that God exists because of this concept or that perception, but rather, God exists because He cannot not exist, if any experience or concept is to have actual meaning.
Frame wants to supplement the transcendental argument, but Bahnsen says he misunderstands the argument because the transcendental argument argues for the whole of the Christian worldview in itself. Bahnsen claims Frame conceives of the transcendental argument in a blockhouse method, and that the transcendental argument really engages in internal critique of both the unbeliever’s and the believer’s worldviews, and in doing so, demonstrates in toto that the Christian worldview is the only possible one because the unbelieving worldview is not possible. All the features of the biblical worldview in all its details are set forth in the transcendental argument, and while one cannot argue for every aspect of the Christian faith simultaneously, it is always the entirety of the Christian system that is being argued for in the transcendental method, and nothing less. The beginning point will be person variable; indeed the uniqueness of the transcendental argument is that it can begin anywhere with the unbeliever’s thought and dismantle it. In light of this, it would seem that Bahnsen would agree with Frame that the transcendental apologetic is not simple in its application, though he likely would affirm that Van Til himself recognized this and did not try to present it as if anything else were the case.
There are other places where Frame would disagree with Van Til and Bahnsen, but these will only be mentioned in passing. Frame believes that arguments for God and the Christian faith will never be perfect, as Christians are still fallible and do not articulate even the transcendental argument perfectly. Therefore, though the evidence for Christian theism is absolute, the argumentation is not. So, we must argue at times from probability. He also says the Christian is not required by God to defend all of the Christian faith in one syllogism, and that the Christian may prove one fact about God at a time, so long as the whole is not distorted in the process. Frame stresses that Christians can argue this way and maintain their Christian presuppositions, because ultimately the presupposition is of the heart and may not necessarily come out in any verbal or visible way whatsoever. Because Frame rejects Van Til’s more extreme articulations of the antithesis, unbelievers may retain some elements of true thought despite their unbelief. He would claim this is in accord with Van Til’s own teaching, though Van Til did not always recognize this. So then, supplementing the bit of truth that the unbeliever does have is a worthy goal of apologetics, but never at the expense of failing to overturn the foundations of unbelieving thought, “for the elements of truth in unbelieving thought are at variance with its foundational commitment”.
In light of what has been discussed, Bahsen’s response to Frame’s critiques in the above paragraph seem fairly apparent. Though the transcendental argument may not be perfectly articulated, a believer can produce a true statement, an accurate syllogism. Just because man does err does not mean he errs in every instance. All men at heart know God, and the transcendental argument in part relies on this fact, so that when it is articulated the unbeliever cannot help but know that it is true. As mentioned earlier, Bahnsen believes that the transcendental argument is unique, and is not constructed as part of a syllogism in the first place. Perhaps he would even say that because the transcendental method argues uniquely and indirectly, it argues “perfectly” for the necessity of the Christian God, not merely with high probability. Regarding arguing in a blockhouse fashion, one can imagine Bahnsen shaking his head, saying that it is simply impossible to argue in such a manner without distorting the whole of the Christian faith. Because of the ontological Trinity, Christianity must be defended as a whole unit, and the presuppositions of the unbeliever must be addressed quickly, otherwise the whole apologetic presentation will be interpreted with the yellow tinted glasses that the unbeliever has cemented on his face. Bahnsen would say that it is precisely because one’s presuppositions are a matter of the heart that they must be brought to the fore of discussion. If the unbeliever is not made epistemologically self-aware, then whatever else the Christian apologist argues for will be interpreted atheistically and never amount to anything more. So the unbeliever has no truth when it comes to identifying the ultimate reference point in anything, and as such the unbeliever’s knowledge cannot really be supplemented. Rather, it must be exposed as fraudulent. Because of the unbeliever’s foundational commitments, they really do not possess any truth in the fullest sense, though by virtue of common grace and being made in the image of God they necessarily contribute to society and culture. Because God is a transcendent God, it follows that the only argument for Him is one that is a transcendental argument.
Despite these disagreements, there are some places where Bahnsen notes agreement with some of Frame’s concerns regarding Van Til. He agrees with Frame that Van Til’s teaching should not be treated as a perfect, seamless garment, and says that Van Til would affirm the same thing and add that only God’s word deserves such treatment. He also believes Van Til used unclear language in the Clark controversy, and that Van Til’s concept of common grace being extended to a “generality” of undifferientiated people rather than the elect and reprobate alike is erroneous. He also agrees with Frame that Van Til could have spent more time making practical applications of his apologetic method and could have articulated some things more clearly than he did.
It would seem then that the differences between Frame and Bahnsen are rather significant in places. Bahnsen is more Van Tillian than Frame is, and given the nature of the transcendental method, it may be argued by Bahnsen that Frame is at best an inconsistent presuppositionalist. Where Frame desires to incorporate historical arguments and supplement the transcendental method with traditional arguments, Bahnsen would likely see this as unnecessary and failing to realize that, on proper grounds, Van Til would advocate the use of evidences in his method (although Frame does recognize this in his writings). The question then becomes in what sense does Frame wish to incorporate other arguments? He says he wants to do it on a Christian presuppositional basis, but because he softens the antithesis compared to Bahnsen/Van Til, it would seem that, in their estimation, he would potentially be doing so by way of compromise, i.e., by allowing the unbeliever to retain his autonomous outlook.
It is clear that how one wrestles with the nature and extent of the antithesis between believer and unbeliever goes a long way in determining just how Van Tillian one is. What cannot be disputed, however, is that Van Til’s method has demonstrated there is indeed a great antithesis between the believer and the unbeliever, and this antithesis must be addressed when Christians debate with unbelievers. May God’s Word in this, as in all matters, be the final arbiter of truth.
Bahnsen, Greg L. Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., ©1998.
Frame, John M. Cornelius van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., ©1995.
 Ibid., 5-6. Bahnsen aptly describes Van Til’s transcendental argument: “The presuppositional challenge to the unbeliever is guided by the premise that only the Christian worldview provides the philosophical preconditions necessary for man’s reasoning and knowledge in any field whatever. This is what is meant by a ‘transcendental’ defense of Christianity. Upon analysis, all truth drives one to Christ. From beginning to end, man’s reasoning about anything whatsoever (even reasoning about reasoning itself) is unintelligible or incoherent unless the truth of the Christian Scriptures is presupposed. Any position contrary to the Christian one, therefore, must be seen as philosophically impossible. It cannot justify its beliefs or offer a worldview whose various elements comport with each other. In short, presuppositional apologetics argues for the truth of Christianity ‘from the impossibility of the contrary.’”