Book Review: Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen
Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg Bahnsen (edited by Robert R. Booth) is an apologetics textbook composed of the works of the late Greg Bahnsen – a notable advocate of presuppositional apologetics. This book represents Bahnsen’s apologetic, presented in two main sections, as described by the editor:
The first section, previously published as a syllabus, provides a step-by-step explanation of key issues in Christian apologetics and establishes the biblical support for the presuppositional method. The second section of this volume offers further practical advice on how to approach an apologetic situation and provides specific answers to particular apologetic questions… (x)
The first half of the book is composed of brief two- or three-page chapters presenting key ideas foundational to Bahnsen’s presuppositional approach to apologetics. The author begins by making a case that one’s epistemology cannon be “neutral,” that is, what Bahnsen calls a “nobody knows yet” attitude. (4) But he argues that this dishonors Christ: “One must be presuppositionally committed to Christ in the world of thought (rather than neutral) and firmly tied down to the faith which he has been taught, or else the persuasive argumentation of secular thought will delude him.” (5) Bahnsen argues that this neutral stance in approaching Christian defense is immoral, because, for one thing, it does not begin with the knowledge of God: “Those who follow the intellectual principle of neutrality and the epistemological method of unbelieving scholarship do not honor the sovereign Lordship of God as they should; as a result their reasoning is made vain.” (8) Because no man is able to serve two lords, “…neutrality is nothing short of immorality.” (9)
Bahnsen says, “philosophy which does not presuppose God’s word is a vain deception,” (23) and so the Christian has two options: “either ground all your thought in Christ’s word and thereby gain the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, or follow the dictates of autonomous thought and thereby be deluded and robbed of a genuine knowledge of the truth.” (24) For some, Bahnsen’s style may come across as dogmatic and absolutistic, which he points out: “It appears dogmatic and absolutistic because, it is dogmatic and absolutistic. The Christian should not be ashamed of this fact.” (31) But, Bahsen says, the claim that all thought requires the presupposition of Christ’s word, “is not arrogant, unreasoning, or unfounded.” (31) Bahnsen stresses an approach of humble boldness throughout the book.
Bahnsen continues to lay out the foundations of the presuppositional apologetic, citing Van Til and Calvin not a few times. After explaining the concept of neutrality, the author moves on to a discussion of “common ground” between believer and unbeliever. He explains:
The foregoing considerations not only establish that there is no neutral ground between the believers and unbelievers, but also that there is ever present common ground between the believer and the unbeliever. What must be kept in mind is that this common ground is God’s ground. All men have in common the world created by God, controlled by God, and constantly revealing God. In this case, any area of life or any fact can be used as a point of contact. The denial of neutrality secures, rather than destroys, commonality. (43)
So Bahnsen seeks to put aside the idea that there is no commonality between believer and unbeliever, and spells out where he sees the differences are. He discusses the idea of autonomy:
The non-Christian thinks that his thinking process is normal. He thinks that his mind is the final court of appeal in all matters of knowledge. He takes himself to be the reference point for all interpretation of the facts. That is, he is epistemologically become a law unto himself: autonomous. (46)
The apologist, on Bahnsen’s view, must take aim and challenge this autonomy: “He must challenge the unbeliever’s presuppositions, asking whether knowledge is even possible, given the non-Christian’s assumptions and perspective.” (55) Bahnsen cites Proverbs 26:4-5 to establish an apologetic approach in dealing with unbelievers: “The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility.” (61) Bahnsen lays out a two-part approach:
…the presuppositional procedure has been seen to involve two steps: 1) an internal critique of the unbeliever’s system, demonstrating that his outlook is a foolish destruction of knowledge, and 2) a humble yet bold presentation of the reason for the hope in us, communicated in terms of the believer’s presuppositional commitment to God’s true word. (69)
In short, Bahnsen says the scriptural approach is to show the unbeliever that his view is actually impossible, while showing that Christianity is the only view that, if presupposed, allows for rationality and intelligibility of the world: “This is what must be pointed out, thus witnessing that the contrary of Christianity is impossible, while on the other hand the dogmas of the faith provide the necessary pre-conditions of intelligibility and meaning. Such is the Scriptural perspective and method.” (75) Any other method of doing apologetics will fall short: “…the apologist cannot attempt to persuade the unbeliever by using the unbeliever’s style of thought or standards of evidence and truth, etc. Such a procedure simply will not woo him to Christ but encourage him to assert his own autonomous authority over Christ’s claims.” (100) Furthermore, on Bahnsen’s view it is either presuppositionalism or laying aside the authority of Christ:
Apologists are prohibited from using a non-presuppositional method in defending the faith under the excuse that thereby truth might abound. The obedient Christian does not lay aside the authority of Christ in the realm in order to argue on the basis of autonomous ‘scholarship.’ To do so would be to operate with a lie (namely, the Satanic life that knowledge can be determined apart from God: Gen 3:5; cf. Rom. 1:25) in order to defend the truth! The faithful witness to Christ will not behave as an unbeliever (denying Christ’s Lordship in order to make him a believer. (101)
Bahnsen also describes a transcendental mode of argumentation:
In various forms, the fundamental argument advanced by the Christian apologist is that the Christian worldview is true because of the impossibility of the contrary. When the perspective of God’s revelation is rejected, then the unbeliever is left in foolish ignorance because his philosophy does not provide the preconditions of knowledge and meaningful experience. To put it another way: the proof that Christianity is true is that if it were not, we would not be able to prove anything. (122)
Most readers will likely be drawn mainly to Bahnsen’s exposition of a presuppositional approach to apologetics (section one). However, section two provides a rich resource of practical answers to the most common attacks on Christianity. (It is also less controversial.) So Bahnsen moves away from theory in the first half to practice in the second half: “Training manuals on fire-fighting do not put out fires; the actual fighting of fires does. And when all is said and done, it is not the theory of apologetics which defends the faith and stops the mouth of critics. Only the practice of apologetics can do that.” (152)
What follows in section two includes answers in dealing with the problem of evil, knowledge of the “supernatural,” the problem of faith, the problem of religious language, and the problem of miracles. This second half of the book is a worthwhile read in dealing with these perennial challenges, as Bahnsen’s perspective is certainly helpful in each area. This review, however, will not expand any further on the content in the second half.
In conclusion, Greg Bahnsen’s Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is one of the main texts one will turn to when studying presuppositional apologetics. Straight-forward and to the point, Always Ready is an easier introduction to presuppositionalism than Van Til. While some readers will part ways with the author’s methodology, they have much to appreciate from Bahnsen’s respect for scripture, his Christ-centered focus, and emphasis on humble boldness.
* Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2006).