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Soon after a young Greg Bahnsen met R. J. Rushdoony at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church gathering Greg decided to become a minister, but not just any minister. Bahnsen became a presuppositionalist Christian apologist like Rushdoony, who urged that there could be no neutrality between the Reformed Christian view and all other views whether they be rival Christian or non-Christian views. He, like R. J. Rushdoony, attempted to defend principles of biblical law that he was certain had been revealed to Moses as the most divinely pleasing laws of all, laws that would also ensure Godʼs blessing for any nation whose rulers enforced them or at least avoid Godʼs curses settling on that nation.
The Institutes of Biblical Law (published 1973) was Rushdoonyʼs three-volume work on how Christians (after they gained leadership roles in government) ought to implement laws including stoning and burning at the stake for adultery, homosexuality, and idolatry, and the legalization of Biblical slavery. To quote Rushdoony, “Since unbelievers are by nature slaves, they could be held as life-long slaves” without piercing the ear to indicate their voluntary servitude (Lev. 25:44-46). This passage in Leviticus says that pagans could be permanent slaves and could be bequeathed to the children of the Hebrews,” adding, “The (Biblical) Law here is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in a godly manner and also that the slave recognizes his position and accepts it with grace.” Neither is such a view dead today. 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee apparently endorses Christian Reconstructionist ideas, see here.
Bahnsen, like Rushdoony, cited Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Bahsen believed that that statement attested to the “abiding validity of the law [of the Old Testament] in exhausting detail,” that Bahsen defended in his mammoth book that appeared in 1977, Theonomy in Christian Ethics.
When his book was published Bahnsen was a junior professor of apologetics at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi. One critic of Bahnsen at RTS mentioned that Bahnsen had a tendency to speak “first, third, and last on all issues” in faculty meetings. And some charged that he encouraged his supportive students to attack the positions of other faculty members. When the RTS faculty called on Bahnsen to defend his reading of Matthew 5 as justifying the re-implementation of Mosaic laws and punishments Bahnsen aggressively defended himself and insulted several of the faculty during the impromptu meeting. Afterwards, faculty members hostile to Bahnsen cracked down on his disruptive students. And officials in the wider RTS system delayed implementing curriculum changes that Bahnsen had developed. His job was on the line. In retaliation Bahnsen attempted to combat the faculty by seeking support for his views from faculty members at RTS Atlanta and from leaders and ministers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
During this heated period Rushdoony offered counsel to Bahnsen and his students. He told Bahsenʼs students that their professor had led them poorly, adding that Bahsen had also encouraged them to act lawlessly. Rushdoony explained that their duty as students was to complete their training, not defend a specific faculty member, and that they should rejoice at the progress reconstructionism was making. In short, work hard, keep your mouths shut, and remain theonomists/reconstructionists without trying to resolve all problems within the church overnight. “Greg,” Rushdoony wrote, “you must place yourself under authority.” In particularly harsh words, Rushdoony called Bahnsen a “big baby, determined to get your own way,” adding, “Please stop writing letters [to faculty in other Reformed seminaries and to OTC church-men, asking for them to defend him]. Leave it to the Lord. You have a great future! Donʼt get in your own way!” [letter from Rushdoony to Bahnsen, 9/20/1978]
Nearly a decade later, James B. Jordan, one of Bahnsenʼs most supportive and influential students, wrote an open letter to the RTS Jackson faculty in which he apologized for siding with Bahnsen, who he now recognized as being “vocal and belligerent” during the controversy. Jordan insisted that he and other students tried to restrain Bahnsen in his dealings with faculty and students, many of whom Bhansen apparently regularly abused in class. “Had the faculty addressed Bahnsen primarily on the question of his personal deportment,” wrote Jordan, “who could have defended him? Unfortunately, the faculty chose to debate the theological question of ‘theonomy,’ and this put me (and others) in the position of standing with Bahnsen in that respect. As the debate heated up, I confess that I wound up involved in the theological debate.”
The end result was that the seminary refused to renew Bahnsenʼs contract in 1978. And he wound up with a job as a church pastor and a high school teacher at a private Christian academy, though he gained some notoriety for his public debates with Catholics, with rival Protestants who rejected his Reconstructionist point of view, and with atheists. Throughout the 1970s and 80s many theses and dissertations were composed by Christians students from Dallas Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and dozens of other Christian institutions who were critical of Bahnsenʼs presuppositional apologetic approach, theonomic interpretation of Old Testament laws, or his postmillennial view of the millennium. Christianity Today even published on Feb. 20, 1987, an expose of Christian Reconstruction that featured caricatures of Rushdoony, Gary North and Greg Bahnsen.
During the short time Bahnsen was a junior professor at the aforementioned Reformed seminary he influenced a few students who would later become major activists, speakers and writers in the Reconstructionist movement, such as Kenneth Gentry, James B. Jordan, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and even, Paul Jennings Hill (who shot the pro-abortion surgeon Dr. John Britton in the head with a shotgun, also killing Brittonʼs escort and wounding Brittonʼs wife). During the 1980s Hill had become active in the anti-abortion movement. Bahnsenʼs theonomic perspective convinced Hill that murdering abortionists was a revolutionary act justified under biblical law. In 2003 the Washington Post reported that Hill exclaimed, “I expect to get a great reward in heaven. I am looking forward to glory.”
Bahnsen was a postmillennialist. Christians remain at odds over their interpretations of the “millennium” in the Bible as demonstrated in, Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Zondervanʼs Counterpoint series) which features a debate between postmillennialist Kenneth Gundry, Jr. (Bahnsen Theological Seminary, Placentia, Calif.), amillennialist Robert Strimple (Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia), and premillennialist Craig Blaising (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.).
Greg Bahnsen, one of the leaders of the Christian Reconstruction school of thought, died tragically December 11, 1996, at the relatively young age of 47 after complications resulting from an artificial heart valve implant. One of his students who became a well known Reconstructionist under his tutelage also died young, David Chilton, of a heart attack at 46.
Bahnsen began his debate with atheist Gordon Stein with the rhetorical flourish, “Just look at the stars and the over 500 witnesses to Jesusʼ resurrection!” How can one not believe in the Christian God?
Stein in response ought to have noted that the witnesses were all listed as “brethren” to begin with. Apparently Jesus was shy when it came to appearing to anyone except those who had already been following him. And Jesus is even shyer when it comes to appearing to people these past 2000 years. Judging by Catholic figures Mary has made more appearances to more people than Jesus during the past 2000 years, though that apparently would not be enough to convince Bahnsen to convert to Catholicism. As for Bahnsenʼs argument that nothing makes any sense without God, the Christian God to be exact, even the conservative Reformed Christian God, I would disagree. I have read the Bible. Anyone who claims it makes perfect sense canʼt deny all the questions it provokes, even in believers who have to chalk up such plain questions to “apparent” discrepancies or “apparent” contradictions, i.e., of one part of the Bible with another, or of the Bible with science, or of certain bloody parts of the Bible with more broadly recognized moral intuitions, etc. So when it is convenient, when the inspiration or inerrancy of the Bible is at stake, believers go all out to argue that “appearances” can also be deceiving.
Also see my piece on Prior Prejudices and the Argument from Reason as well as Complexity is how the Cosmos flows. Mathematical Models of Reality and the Fine-Tuning Argument do not constitute proof of the kind that Intelligent Design advocates insist they do.
Some Christians try to accept the presuppositionalist apologetic stance of a Cornelius Van Til, a Rushdoony or a Bahnsen while not accepting their interpretations of the Bible which led those same men to proclaim the necessity for Christians to return to Mosaic laws and punishments, including their idiosynractic views concerning economics, and their literal interpretations of the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the stories about creation, fall, flood, tower of Babel—stories that many Evangelicals are more hesitant today to declare to be authentic history).
But Christians who just wish to accept the presuppositionalistsʼ claim to the “foundation of all knowledge,” then must grant that such a claim seems to have granted the founders of presuppositionalism no perceptible advantage when it came to actually Gaining Knowledge—their apologetic approach does not appear to have granted them superior powers of interpretations of Godʼs revelation, not in terms of law, economics, biology or even ancient Near Eastern studies.
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