Bahnsen at the Stein Debate

by John Frame


Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein has become something of a legend in our circles. We must admit that it has been rare for a presuppositionalist to actually debate an unbeliever. To the extent that this fact stems from fear, or from a misunderstanding of presuppositionalism (“no point of contact”), we should be ashamed. To the extent that it stems from a lack of debating gifts, (as I would plead in my own defense), we should pray that God will give us more such gifts. To the extent that we have some hesitations about the debate-genre, we should seek to reform it. I confess that I do have some reservations about that format: it almost requires the opponents to try to tear one another to shreds, rather than speaking the truth in love. But there seems to be no other structure capable of drawing such clear contrasts between two positions, before a live audience.

Whatever we may say about that, on this anniversary we should recall that Greg Bahnsen was supremely gifted in debate and had no fear whatsoever. And he fully understood that there is indeed a point of contact between believer and unbeliever: in the power of the Spirit, and in the knowledge of God the unbeliever has, but suppresses.

I was there, having driven up with several students from Westminster in Escondido. It was in a large lecture hall at U. C. Irvine, and the place was packed. The atmosphere was electric. I don’t know how many were Christians, but it was evident as the debate progressed that the audience became convinced that Bahnsen won the debate.

To be honest, Stein was not a strong representative of his position. As Bahnsen pointed out, he had no philosophical training. He was a “village atheist” type, representing some freethought organization. He came prepared to offer stock objections to the standard theistic proofs of Aquinas and others. When Bahnsen announced that he too objected to those standard proofs, but that he offered a very different proof, a “transcendental argument,” Stein was evidently flummoxed. He didn’t seem to have ever heard of such a thing. So he huffed and puffed and sputtered away, finding various ways of using his prepared material—which (in the view of the audience) Bahnsen had shown to be irrelevant. In the end, Stein walked and talked like a broken man.

Bahnsen’s transcendental argument was carefully put together and eloquently stated: logic, the laws of nature, and the laws of morality make no sense unless God is presupposed. I confess I was not fully convinced that Bahnsen’s “transcendental argument” was as different from the arguments of Aquinas as he claimed. For I think the implication of Aquinas’s argument, too, is that at least one cannot account for the laws of nature without God. And I suspect that Aquinas would have said the same thing about logic and morality. Both Bahnsen and Aquinas believed, “without God, no logic, natural law, or moral law.” So the difference between Bahnsen and Aquinas needs to be spelled out further than was done in the Stein debate. Of course there was no time for such a methodological discussion in that context. Bahnsen and I later discussed our differences on that subject in various venues, and that discussion still continues among us years after Bahnsen’s untimely death. Before Bahnsen entered the hospital for the last time, we exchanged emails, reaffirming our friendship and mutual respect. The last words of his email to me, and the last I ever heard from him, were, “but I still disagree with you on the transcendental argument.” How typically Bahnsen, indeed.

But I do honor him, as one God singularly gifted for the spiritual warfare of our time. I hope that his example inspires others to join the fray with similar brilliance, passion, and commitment. I have recommended the tapes of the Stein debate to many of my students. Whatever we may say about the debate genre, there is a place for confrontation and for the intellectual exposure of Satan’s lies. In those respects, Bahnsen still has no peer.


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