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The Great Debate (Bahnsen V. Stein) & Presuppositional Apologetics


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I recently listened to what is probably the most interesting and challenging debate on the existence of God I have ever confronted. I think I've seen some vague references to this 1985 debate on a couple freethought sites. There are various mp3 recordings and I think youtube or video recordings around the web; I downloaded it to my iPod here: http://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/greg-bahnsen-vs-gordon-stein-the-great-debate/. An attendant must-read is wikipedia's entry on prepositional apologetics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositional_apologetics I'm curious to hear how others have dealt with this material. I could not easily answer all that was said. My initial reaction is that this philosophical approach is:

1) admittedly circular in nature (it just claims that all knowledge is necessarily so); and

2) it belies a god so abstract and impersonal (despite purporting to claim the personal god of the bible specifically) as to be virtually useless and unworthy of further attention.

Still, the claims and the method employed are mind bending enough to be interesting. Caution: this 2 hour debate is not well-suited to casual interest.

Last, if anyone can link to good discussion/analysis to this debate or otherwise directly on point, I'd be appreciative.

Why is or isn't this one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God?

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I went to reformed Presbyterian churches before I de converted. Greg Bahnsen was a hero of mine, I read all of his books and listened to most of his lectures.


You can spend all the time you want reading Van Til, John Frame, Doug Wilson. They will twist your mind into a philosophical pretzel. However, there TAG argument still boils down to faith. They will tell you "unbelief" is a world-view problem, not an intellectual problem. You have to have a world view that starts with their view of God. It's a waste of time to respond to their rubbish.


But if you are a gluten for punishment watch the movie debate with Douglass Wilson and Christopher Hitchens. And for a good rebuttal off TAG read "Transcendental Argument For the Nonexistence of God" by Michael Martin.

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I was a presuppositionalist and a few of my close "intellectual" friends are as well. It's glorified circular logic and it's inescapable. Without biblical presuppositions you will come to the beliefs the secular world holds. Evidence in favor for evolution and against the Bible are laid out as the only possible conclusion to arrive at without the biblical presuppositions guiding you. The Pyromaniacs blog would be a good source of Christian material and arguments for that point of view.

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As I've had time to reflect the debate further, however, I've been able to think through the ultimate silliness of it. And I post part of my thoughts, which I recently emailed as part of longer discussion with my whip-smart younger brother studying at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was ultimately forced to conceded most of what I am saying, albeit he tried to fall back on "the Resurrection" as a magical incantation and of course the personal experience of knowing God. These are the lengths the desperate (even otherwise intelligent) mind will go to in the service of wanting to believe. (The Debate is and remains, a scintillating mental experience).





As I see and understand the world now, there is ultimately no meaningful distinction between conclusions that come from thoughts versus those that come from feelings - pause and ponder that a moment. (Some of my freethinking friends will no-doubt take me to task about this).


Actually, to your credit, you conceded this point pretty much at Mom's house when you acknowledged that yes, in fact the Christian wants there to be a God in many ways more than he really "thinks" there is. And this is what Bahnsen's impressive gobbledygook boils down to. I was pretty freaked out by it - but upon reflection, the premise that one launches out into the deep at the beginning clinging to the King James as the assumed-truth, is a con-artist's trick, and not worthy of adherence. Which, I think explains in part why his philoso-babble has not become the lodestar argument in Christian apologetics - recall you and I having differing, but both surprising views as to this.


By the way, I don't dispute (also don't care) that all claims to ultimate epistemological authority are circular. I just don't go the next step and think, "ergo, there must be a loving, personal space-god, oh and millions of animals lived on an ark for 40 days, and Samson took a donkey-jaw and killed 1,000 Philistine warriors and then caught 300 foxes by hand and tied their tails together and set them on fire (no offense). (Btw, what a perfectly evil fictitious person).


You state: "Ergo, the pure rationalist has no epistemological leg up on the committed believer who believes the Bible is true because it says it's true. After all, the rationalist believes that reason is true for ultimately rational reasons (reason has become their "Bible")." Ok, fine. Except here's a hum-dinger. See if it throws the wrench back in Greggo's (and the theist's) premises. According to the Book of Rob--which I'm writing in this email (and claim is infallible)--I say my thoughts are true, and my epistemology is as strong--nay stronger--'cause it ALSO comports with rationality (that little fuddy-duddy)--and is located (perhaps?) in my own head. And it says, "there is no God...AND human beings are real." Yea! I've won. Or why wouldn't I have? I have turned Banshen's nonsense on its head and used its own fabric to state my own truth, which even by using all his own terms, he cannot assail. Can you neatly explain why and where I'm wrong? Is it because, after all, the problem is that I am unfortunately not the Savior of the world, redeeming all mankind--well not all (not the majority of the masses who will burn long into the eternal night)--and so I don't make ultimate sense of the mess for the world? But this doesn't change the fact that I'm right, you see. It only requires that one does in fact accept the more abject reality, that yes, this life doesn't make good sense in terms of its prettiness and reason for living. Greggors can't accept that, so he spins the mental wheel, postulating his arguments against absurdity (I believe his entire attack on pure rationalism boils down to the formal logical approach of calling all opposing views a reductio ad absurdum). I get that. He can't accept it. Neither can I. Neither can anyone. And yet, somehow, some ineffably, monstrously wondrous way, I continue to keep putting one foot down in front of the other, against all odds and philosophical reason. The beauty is that, in the face of meaninglessness, we (most of us) go on living anyway - even knowing we could lose it all at any moment. What breathtaking, hallowed beauty that countervails.


By naming the resurrection as your "reason" (?) for believing, you beg the question and are circular again (and did I mention that's circular and begs the question?). I know, you and Bahnsen have made an exception that allows for this fallacy - except when you use it against the Atheist. Or is that where I'm wrong? You'd say, no, no, question-begging and circular thinking is to be universally permitted so that, and in order for the story of redemption to be palatable to us? If so, you're right, I won't go with you there. I'll cling to the illusion of rationality left in the world.


I know you've had experience meeting God. And I can't prove or reconcile that I genuinely hope this continues for you. Whereas for me, and for Dan Barker, and for so many others, we had equally vivid and genuine experiences with God. And now we are unalterably convinced these were the manifestations of a mind, grappling for meaning and desire, in a meaningless world. And yet we go mostly-happily along for the time being. And are left with the quintessential essence of whatever we mean by love and beauty - that, my dear brother, is what it is. The stuff of life.



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Reading the wikipedia article, Gordon Clark seems to be one of the most self-deluded people I've ever heard of. Here's a question I've been thinking over. Clark and VanTil both claim that the xian "world view" is 100% consistent with itself. A student of Clark claimed that he could prove Islam as being false by showing that Allah's nature contradicts itself, because Allah is said to be objectively just, while also forgiving guilty sinners without punishing them. But for some reason, an argument like this won't work for xianity. (Because accoring to Clark, xiainity is completely consistant with itself.) There are plenty of examples of Yahweh's character not being consistent with itself. Such as, Numbers, Hebrews, and Titus all claim that god cannot lie, but in Jeremiah, the author claims god lied to him, in Ezekiel, it says that if a prophet is deceived, Yahweh is who deceived him, in 1 Kings, Yahweh lies by proxy, by sending "lying spirits", and finally, in 2 Thessalonians, it blatantly states that

And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie


There are many, many more inconsistancies with Yahweh, but I made my point. I'm sure a xian apologist could "explain" all of them, just as a muslim apologist could "explain" any contradictions with Allah's character. Does anyone know of any other blatant contradictions with Yahweh's alleged character, as this is still bothering me a little bit.


excalvinist, I remember the Wilson-Hitchens debate back when I was a xian. (Doug Wilson was big in my church.) According to the title, they were supposed to be debating "Whether Christianity was good for the world", but when I read excerpts from it, all they seemed to be doing was attacking each others beliefs while not really debating the supposed topic. (Wilson also used more ad hominem attacks than even R. Turkel would be able to muster.) I was pretty turned off and never watched it. Who "won" officially? Because the audience of both sides claime their respective side did. What was Wilson's debating tactic?

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A couple quick points. The major substantive contradictions in the Biblical texts (to say nothing of the overriding theological extensions therefrom) are so numerous I don't know if they could ever be catalogued. But Dan Barker has an excellent primer of a chapter on this in his Book, Godless. I recommend - it's a quick read. Also, spend just a few minutes perusing the Skeptic's Annotated Bible on line. You'll get more contradictions and other Biblical stupidity and evil than you can ever shake a stick at - it's a bit overwhelming actually.


The Wilson-Hitchens debate (there were also 2 other participants) was a clear victory for Hitchens and Wilson (if I've got Wilson as the right person - a gay commentator of some sort). The forum moderator had organized for a pre-debate poll and a post-debate poll on the question of Whether the Church of Jesus Christ does more good or harm in the world essentially. It was in London. Before the debate, somewhere in the neighborhood of about 55% of the audience thought the church did more evil. After the debate, the number believing the church did more bad than good rose to somewhere around 60-70%. The church-defenders lost and lost badly any way you'd ever try to measure such a thing. If you don't believe me, find it on YouTube and/or iTunes (which is where I got it).


Part of me wishes I was making up some of this, but I am not exaggerating (though I don't recall the exact numbers of course).



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