Bahnsen’s Poof
By Dawson Bethrick


The following is my May 13, 2004 posting to the All Bahnsen Discussion List. Aside from a few minor edits and enhancements, what you are about to read is the same posting which I submitted to the list.




Bahnsen's "Transcendental Poof of the Existence of God"


In their discussion, Paul (a presuppositionalists) and Nick (a non-believer) seem to differ on whether or not Bahnsen actually presented an argument for his god-belief assertions. In msg #316, Paul attributes the following statement to Nick: "Bahnsen never argued for his position." (I have been unable to find the actual post where Nick stated this.)


Paul denies this, and in his msg #324 he wrote the following:


Is this your opinion, now? Michael Martin was going to debate Bahnsen, you don't think he 'analyzed' the debate? That is a stretch. Yet he still called it *arguments.* ...[This] served to refute yoru claim that Bahnsen never argued. Besides, read you comments. I provided statements by atheists who said Bahnsen *argued.* [sic]


In his msg #330, Nick offered to "cite crucial assertions that Bahnsen stated without arguing." Indeed, it seems that the best way to refute Nick's statement would be to reproduce Bahnsen's argument. Does anyone disagree?


But I would also draw your attention to statements made by Michael Martin himself which relate to this controversy. In his essay Does Induction Presume the Existence of the Christian God? Martin makes the following comment:


In order to evaluate TAG systematically it is necessary to have a clear statement of it. I have been unable to find one. To be sure, the conclusion of TAG is clear enough. However, although Bahnsen in his lectures reiterated TAG's conclusion, he said very little about how this was reached.


So, I think it would be difficult to rule out the possibility that, if Martin has elsewhere stated "Bahnsen argues...," he was probably speaking euphemistically in the interest of giving benefit to the doubt. Technically speaking, however, it seems that Martin found Bahnsen's lack of a clear argument frustrating.


In his msg #305, Gary offered the following argument and attributed it to Bahnsen:


Premise 1: Nothing exists or God exists.

Premise 2: Something exists.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists. (1)


Now, I suppose one could call this an argument, for it takes on the form of an argument. But of course, the problem here is that the initial premise needs to be defended, and to date I've not seen anyone defend it, even though both Nick (msg #307) and I (msg #312) have called for it.


The argument Gary presented strikes me as arbitrary as the following:


Premise 1: Nothing exists or Geusha exists.

Premise 2: Something exists.

Conclusion: Therefore, Geusha exists.


To the extent that Bahnsen's "argument" is valid, so is the "argument" for the existence of Geusha, and for precisely the same reasons. However, both lack a defense. Consistency (a favorite presuppositionalist term?) would have it that, if one rejects the former, he would reject the latter as well. So, in the end, is it really an argument? I trow not.


Now, many apologists have pointed with glee to Bahnsen's performance in his debate with Gordon Stein as a shining example of presuppositional apologetics - specifically TAG - in action. For instance, John Frame says that "Greg Bahnsen utterly bewildered atheist spokesman Gordon Stein in a debate some years ago with his 'transcendental argument for the existence of God'... Stein was ready to answer the traditional proofs, but not this one!" (2) Now, I've examined the content of this debate on numerous occasions, and I must say it is not clear where exactly Bahnsen presents an actual argument. It seems to me that Bahnsen merely asserts "God" as the foundation to everything and then proclaims that anything which does not acknowledge this is somehow false or invalid. It seems that Bahnsen only succeeds in multiplying his burdens without meeting any of them, for now he has to (1) prove that there's a god, and (2) prove that everything else is riding on it. Epistemologically speaking, Bahnsen manages to get himself deeper and deeper into debt. That's not what I would call a prudent way to conduct a debate.


Now, if we examine the portion of Bahnsen's opening statement in his debate with Stein where he presents his case, we find that this is Bahnsen's strategy: multiply burdens instead of meeting them. Thanks to the All-Bahnsen list's very own Chris Kersey (3), there is a printable transcript of the Bahnsen-Stein debate available on the web here.


Below I have pasted the last four paragraphs of Bahnsen's opening statement which are headed with the following subtitle: "The Transcendental Argument For the Existence Of God" - which would lead me to expect to find the presentation of an argument somewhere therein. But unfortunately, nowhere do I find any chain of inference which leads to the conclusion, "Therefore, God exists." Now, typically apologists have attempted to excuse Bahnsen for this apparent oversight by claiming that TAG is what they call an "indirect argument." Okay, but even Frame answers this response: "Any indirect argument of this sort can be turned into a direct argument by some creative phrasing." (4) If that's the case, why doesn't Bahnsen do this, and, seeing that he hasn't, what "creative phrasing" do apologists offer in order to clarify what Bahnsen should have made clear?


Here are the last four paragraphs of Bahnsen's opening statement:


GB> The Transcendental Argument For the Existence Of God


GB> And so I come thirdly then to the transcendental proof of

GB> God's existence. How should the difference of opinion between

GB> the theist and the atheist be rationally resolved? That was my

GB> opening question. We've seen two of Dr. Steins errors

GB> regarding it: The crackers in the pantry fallacy, and the

GB> pretended neutrality fallacy.


GB> In the process of discussing them, we've observed that belief

GB> in the existence of God is not tested in any ordinary way like

GB> other factual claims; and the reason for that is metaphysically

GB> because of the non-natural character of God and epistemologically

GB> because of the presuppositional character of commitment for or

GB> against His existence.


GB> Arguments over conflicting presuppositions between world-views

GB> therefore must be resolved somewhat differently and yet still

GB> rationally than conflicts over factual existence claims within a

GB> world-view or system of thoughts. When we go to look at the

GB> different world-views that atheists and theists have, I suggest

GB> that we can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of

GB> the contrary.


GB> The transcendental proof for God's existence is that without

GB> Him, it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist world-view

GB> is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions

GB> of intelligible experience, science, logic or morality. The

GB> atheist world-view cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity

GB> of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and

GB> moral absolutes. In that sense, the atheist world-view cannot

GB> account for our debate tonight.


In the first paragraph, Bahnsen makes it clear that he is going to present "the transcendental proof of God's existence.” But immediately he digresses into the issue of "the difference of opinion between the theist and the atheist," and turns the spotlight on "two of Dr. Steins errors" [sic]. What do Dr. Stein's errors have to do with Dr. Bahnsen's "proof"?


In the second paragraph, Bahnsen continues shining the spotlight on "Dr. Steins errors," reviewing his own efforts to excuse the question of God's existence form tests conducted "in any ordinary way like other factual claims." What specifically does Bahnsen mean by "any ordinary way" in this context? He doesn't say. Bahnsen's aim here is to distinguish the nature of his claim from "other factual claims," which makes me wonder what warrants his assertion's claim to factuality since he wants to put some distance between it and "other factual claims." Notice that Bahnsen has yet to present an argument. But, Bahnsen does add another burden to his plate here: Not only does he have to prove the existence of his god, he now has to prove "the non-natural character of God" as well as "the presuppositional character of commitment for or against His existence."


In the third paragraph, Bahnsen still has yet to present an argument "for the existence of God." Even before he's presented an argument demonstrating the existence of his god, he's already announcing limitations on what will and will not qualify as an acceptable means of validating his claim that his god exists. Bahnsen's statement suggests that "the different world-views that atheists and theists have" will somehow "prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary." So, Bahnsen adds another burden onto his cart: not only does he need to prove that his god exists, he also needs to prove that it is impossible for his god not to exist.


We come now to the very last paragraph in his opening statement, and now it appears he's trying to get back on track to meeting the first of his confessional burdens. He makes the conclusion of his argument very clear: "The transcendental proof for God's existence is that without Him, it is impossible to prove anything." Now, this is an assertion which needs a defense. It's certainly not self-evidently true, and Bahnsen does not give us any reason why we should accept this claim as opposed to the claim that "without Geusha, it is impossible to prove anything." Does Bahnsen present an argument for his claim? No. Immediately he turns the spotlight back onto "the atheist world-view," claiming that it "is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic or morality." So, not only does Bahnsen not present an argument for his conclusion, he manages to lay another burden on his wagon. It's getting pretty heavy 'bout now. Has Bahnsen proven that his god exists? Not yet. Has Bahnsen proven that "the atheist world-view cannot account for our debate tonight"? No, not yet. He hasn't even presented an argument yet. He's simply asserted the very position he's called to prove, and he's added some more claims to his proof deficit. It seems that Bahnsen doesn't offer a proof here. Rather, we should call this the "Transcendental Poof of the existence of God," for it seems that Bahnsen presumes to have the power to say "poof!" and voilá, “God exists.” That is, Bahnsen's god exists because he wants his god to exist. Where's the argument?


It seems, in the case of his debate with Gordon Stein, Bahnsen fails to present an argument, just as Nick has indicated.


Dawson Bethrick





(1) In personal correspondence with me, presuppositionalist Mike Warren (website) made the following comment: “The argument that Gary attributes to Bahnsen was not intended by Bahnsen to be a serious argument that atheists would find persuasive. (You can find it in a taped lecture on "Natural Theology").” And though it seems an understatement to say that this is not “a serious argument that atheists would find persuasive,” it seems that Gary did not understand this.


(2) Apologetics to the Glory of God, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994), 76n.19.


(3) When my message was posted on the All Bahnsen list, the moderator inserted the following comment at this point: “I would take a bow if I didn't suspect I was the target of some cruel jest here.” Even after a polite offlist exchange with the moderator regarding his inserted comment, it remains unclear to me why he thought I was targeting him, or what he thought I was intending something cruel against him.


(4) Op. cit.





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