Dr. Bahnsen's Legacy
One of the key areas of Christian endeavor is also one of the most pressing religious concerns before the church today:
The Scriptures call us to sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15). And with the world set in rebellion against God, man universally suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). So not only do we have an obligation to engage in apologetics but we also have a difficult obligation in that Scripture forewarns that men will resist us from the very depths of their being.
Both of the Biblical statements mentioned in the previous paragraph have a strong bearing upon apologetics. Peter directs us to an apologetic that sanctifies the Lord; not just any apologetic method will do. Paul informs us that man really knows the truth, which, because of his unrighteousness, he vigorously suppresses. With these Scriptural insights we are pressed to engage an apologetic that is uncompromising in its commitment to Christ and that takes account of man’s inherent knowledge of God as a point of contact. This calls us to the transcendental method that engages apologetics at the presuppositional level the view explained and promoted by Dr. Cornelius Van Til and two of his leading disciples, Rousas J. Rushdoony and Greg L. Bahnsen.
My Interest in Bahnsen’s Life and Ministry
I have been asked to write a brief article introducing the ministry of Dr. Bahnsen, whose ministry was largely rooted in apologetics. I thank God that, by His providence, I was able to study under Bahnsen at Reformed Seminary from 1975 to 1977. The four theologians who have most influenced my personal life, Biblical faith, and pastoral practice are John Calvin, Cornelius Van Til, Rousas J. Rushdoony, and Greg L. Bahnsen. They have shown me that Calvinism is Christianity come into its own. And I praise God for their ministerial labors.
Paul tells us of the victory associated with Christ’s entry into heaven. At that glorious event He poured out abundant and glorious gifts upon men (Eph. 4:8ff.). One of those important gifts for the ongoing life and ministry of the church is the gift of teacher (Eph. 4:11). I count Greg Bahnsen as one of the great gifts of God to the church in our time.
In my circuitous route to Reformed theology and the Presbyterian pastorate, I had come out of a dispensational church, through a dispensational college (Tennessee Temple College ) and seminary (Grace Theological Seminary), to the growing conviction of the covenantal nature of God’s dealings with man.
In 1976 I transferred from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana, to Reformed Seminary in Jackson , Mississippi . As providence would have it, I was there for most of Bahnsen’s tenure with that institution. But those two years were of dramatic life-changing and ministry-encouraging consequence because of Greg Bahnsen.
When I first enrolled in a Bahnsen class, I admit that I was not pleased. Here was a professor who really made you work for your grades. And some of his views were new and unusual to me: theonomic ethics and postmillennial eschatology, in particular. But thank God for this mind-expanding, ministry-altering experience! Initially I resisted Bahnsen’s unusual positions. In fact, I set about to challenge those positions among my fellow students. But anyone who has experienced Bahnsen’s instruction, knows that he was so careful in his presentation, so logical in his argumentation, so quick in his thinking, so Biblical in his foundations, and so forceful in his conclusions that all hope of credible resistance was futile. I eventually was swayed by his presentations and adopted his positions. And I have never regretted having done so.
Intellectually, he taught me to study and to think; pastorally, he showed me the relevance of Scripture for all of life; personally, he encouraged me to stand firm in my convictions and to trust in God against all opposition. I will never cease to be amazed at the incredible breadth of knowledge he possessed, at the ease with which he could analyze and respond to questions and arguments, both philosophically and scripturally. He is an example for anyone who would promote God’s Word according to the Pauline directive in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.
Over the years it was my joy and privilege to have Greg stay in my home on several occasions, to have him proclaim the Word of God in my pastoral charges, to co-author a book with him, and to appear on the same platform with him at several conferences. I continued to grow because of his ministry even after my formal training under him in seminary. I am thankful for the enormous influence he has had, and for the large collection of tapes (over 1800) that are and will continue to be available and circulating among God’s people. My only disappointment is that circumstances did not allow him time to produce more books though the few he did release are enormously important contributions to applied theology.
I am thankful, though, that the Lord allowed him to finish his extremely important work: Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis . Greg knew the enormity of his health difficulties in his final days, so he labored diligently to finish the book before his heart surgery just in case. The book focuses on key passages in Van Til’s writings which are necessary for understanding presuppositionalism, arranges them topically for easy, flowing reading, and provides clear and insightful commentary on the issues involved. It is a must-read for understanding the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century, Dr. Cornelius Van Til an apologist who was not the clearest of writers.
Bahnsen’s Early Life and Training
Greg L. Bahnsen was born on September 17, 1948 in Auburn, Washington, to Robert and Virginia Bahnsen. He was the eldest of two sons. As a young child Bahnsen grew up in Pico Rivera, California, where he suffered numerous medical complications. His most serious problem was a severe blood platelet problem that nagged him for the rest of his life, causing him to have difficulty stanching bleeding. His physical problems were aggravated at the age of five by a water tank falling on his right hand, causing a mild deformity. It was not until his medical exam, required for enrolling in college, that he discovered he also had a heart problem, which was to claim his life twenty years later after his third valve implant surgery.
Despite his physical difficulties, he was blessed to be raised in a Reformed home with loving Christian parents who saw the importance of covenantally passing on their spiritual inheritance to their sons. He regularly attended church, church camps, Youth for Christ, and other Christian and church related activities, never straying from the Faith. For his entire life he was either a member of or a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
Dr. Bahnsen was also gifted by God with a strong intellectual capacity, which showed itself in superior grades all the way through high school. Even as early as high school he was already reading and absorbing the works of Cornelius Van Til. Later he graduated from Westmont College in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, securing magna cum laude honors and the John Bunyan Smith award for overall grade point average.
Before graduating Westmont College, Bahnsen married Cathie Wade in 1969 (they would eventually have three sons and an adopted Vietnamese daughter; they were divorced in 1990 after she deserted him). While he attended college he began writing for Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation, where he could employ his appreciation of Van Til. His covenantal Calvinism was becoming more pointedly focused; his desire for applied Calvinism was leading him to admire Rushdoony’s strong convictions in the fields of apologetics, theology, and social ethics.
His Graduate Life and Later Ministry
In 1970 he enrolled in Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) in Philadelphia , the premiere Reformed seminary in the nation at that time. There he studied under and became close friends with Dr. Van Til, who greatly appreciated his apologetic prowess. He graduated from WTS in May of 1973, securing two degrees simultaneously: a professional ministerial degree (the Master of Divinity) and an academic degree (the Master of Theology). Not only did he acquire these two degrees but he did so in style, winning the William Benton Greene prize in apologetics and a Richard Weaver Fellowship from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Upon securing his graduate degrees in theology, he enrolled in graduate studies in philosophy at the prestigious University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles in 1973. Two years later (in 1975) he was ordained as a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and moved to Jackson , Mississippi , to accept the position of Associate Professor of Apologetics and Ethics at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). He would continue in his doctoral work at USC while teaching at RTS, earning his Doctor of Philosophy degree in June of 1978. His dissertation was in the field of epistemology and was titled: A Conditional Resolution of the Apparent Paradox of Self-Deception.
In 1977 a reworked version of his master’s thesis from Westminster Theological Seminary (The Theonomic Responsibility of the Civil Magistrate) was published as the nearly 600 page Theonomy in Christian Ethics . Unfortunately, theonomic ethics caused a firestorm of controversy in seminary and presbytery circles, resulting in his contract with RTS not being renewed after the 197879 academic year. The Bahnsens then moved back to southern California in June of 1979 where Greg wrote frequently for Gary North, planted an OPC church (January 1980), and accepted a faculty position with the prestigious Newport Christian High School in Newport Beach (September 1980).
In February of 1985 Bahnsen debated the president of Atheists United and the American Rationalist Federation (Dr. Gordon Stein), demonstrating his remarkable apologetical and debating skills before an audience of hundreds. The taped debate is one of the best-selling tape sets available through Covenant Media Foundation (which distributes his materials) and has been a source of great encouragement to untold numbers of Christians. He engaged in several other public debates on apologetics and various social and political issues (including theonomy, gun control, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism, Islam and Judaism), and spoke at conferences across America, in the British Isles and Russia during his distinguished career.
In 1990 Dr. Bahnsen worked with Michael Nelson to establish the Southern California Center for Christian Studies. The Studies Center has as its mission cultivating intelligent commitment to the Christian faith, seeking with skill, sincerity and love to: challenge unbelief in all its forms and defend the claims of Christ, expound and explain the system of precious truth found in the Scriptures, apply God’s word to the life of believers as well as to their world, train God’s people for service to the Lord, and to encourage Christian piety, outreach, compassion and maturity. After Bahnsen’s death, the Board of the Studies Center established Bahnsen Theological Seminary to provide distance education for those seeking advanced theological degrees.
Bahnsen authored six books: Theonomy in Christian Ethics ; Homosexuality: A Biblical View; By This Standard; No Other Standard; Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith; and Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. He co-authored one with me (House Divided: The Break-up of Dispensational Theology), contributed major articles to seven other books, wrote hundreds of articles, and produced over 1,800 audio tapes.
On December 5, 1995 , he underwent his third open-surgery to replace his aortic valve. Within twenty-four hours he developed serious complications. After being comatose for several days he died on December 11, 1995 at the age of forty-seven. Since his death his ministry influence has actually grown, primarily due to his large catalog of tapes and the influence of SCCCS and BTS. Certainly, though he is dead, yet he speaketh.
Written by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., holds degrees from Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th. M.; Th. D). He also attended Grace Theological Seminary for two years. He is Research Professor in New Testament (Whitefield Theological Seminary), a theological writer, and conference speaker. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, theonomy, six-day creation, presuppositionalism, worldview, Christian education, and more. He also offers a Christian writing correspondence course. He is the Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a non-profit religious educational ministry committed to sponsoring, subsidizing, and advancing serious Christian scholarship and education. He is a retired Presbyterian minister holding his ordination vows in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly.
Member of Covenant Presbyterian Church of the Low Country
Founder of the Bahnsen Project
Pastor of Five Solas Church [OPC]
Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Wisconsin and Minnesota
Former student of Dr. Bahnsen at Ashland Seminary
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