Should our case be “subjective or personal”?

Series on Does God Exist? Dr. Greg Bahnsen versus Dr. Gordon Stein

Debate Transcript

Should we argue for “general theism”?

Should our case be “subjective or personal”?

Having presented his reasons for arguing for Christian theism as a unit or system of thought Bahnsen moves on to discuss what the debate is about. Bahnsen transitions from the aforementioned topic he addresses at the very beginning of his first opening statement through placing a slightly different emphasis upon the systematic nature of Christian theism. Bahnsen is arguing for Christian theism as a unit or system of thought so that the debate is about philosophical systems. The debate is presented as concerning philosophical systems as opposed to the people who adhere to or profess them.

Bahnsen states, “Our concern is with the objective merits of the case which can be made for atheism or Christian theism, not related subjective or personal matters.” Certainly subjective and personal matters can be important topics to discuss as they may (loosely speaking) constitute barriers to a person coming to faith (as one example of why they are important – there are others). Note that Bahnsen does not dismiss these matters in general but rather in the context of the debate. The proponents of Christian theism and atheism are to be concerned with the objective merits of cases for Christian theism or atheism and this is as it should be in debate. Nevertheless Bahnsen’s observation that there may be related subjective and personal matters should not be missed.

Bahnsen continues, “The personalities of those individuals who adhere to different systems of thought are not really relevant to the truth or falsity of the claims made by those systems.” Personalities can vary rather radically from one individual to another and often appear to have very little if anything to do with whether or not a person is an atheist or a Christian. As Bahnsen puts it, “Atheists and Christians can equally be found emotional, unlearned, intolerant or rude in their approaches.” With a few qualifications concerning rudeness none of the examples of different personality traits Bahnsen provides need be thought of as moral shortcomings. Bahnsen addresses the morality of adherents to atheism and Christian theism after his comments about personality. Personality has little to do with the debate and nothing to do with the objective cases made for atheism or Christian theism.

Bahnsen turns his attention to detailing what he means when he says that the debate is not about subjective matters or “Subjective claims made about the experience of inner satisfaction or peace – claims that are made in earnest by both Christians and atheists in their literature – and promotional claims made about the superiority of Christianity or atheism.”

For instance, some atheist literature suggests that greater mental health comes through the independence of the atheist outlook. These sorts of things are always subject to conflicting interpretations and explanations, being, I think, more autobiographical, rather than telling us anything for sure about the truth of the system under consideration.

Even those who disagree with Bahnsen and other covenantal apologists that evidence will be interpreted in terms of the presuppositions one brings to that evidence will have difficulty disagreeing with Bahnsen about the “conflicting interpretations and explanations” which exist whenever some ‘new study’ comes out pertaining to matters like the one Bahnsen mentions. Subjective considerations are by definition not objective considerations and hence are irrelevant to the debate even though they may in some way be related to the topic under consideration. The concern is for the objective case which can be made for atheism or Christian theism as a philosophical system. One who objects that subjective elements and autobiography may be appropriately utilized in the debate is likely thinking of the objective merits or demerits of atheism or Christian theism implied by some topic (or similar topic) mentioned in the examples provided when provided within the context of an argument. Bahnsen would have likely had no problem with someone objecting to his clarification of what the debate is about or an argument utilizing some subjective element of atheism or Christian theism in an effort to delineate some alleged consistency or inconsistency.

That Bahnsen speaks strictly of personalities rather than moral failings is clear in that he now explicitly addresses morality. He says, “The issue is not whether atheists or professing Christians have ever done anything undesirable or morally unacceptable.” Again the topic of the debate is not on the subject Bahnsen mentions here. If Christians are not able to justify themselves concerning their own sins (and they are not) then they are certainly not in a position to defend all professing Christians throughout history against charges of moral failure. Bahnsen notes an apparent equality among atheists and Christians with respect to undesirable personalities and here employs the same line of thought in mentioning that “One need only think respectively of the atheist involvement in the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, and the professing Christian involvement in the Spanish Inquisition.” Atheists and Christians have both been unquestionably responsible for a great deal of evil. Unfortunately atheists have a tendency to express their extreme dislike of the teachings of Scripture concerning the universality of guilt for sin while simultaneously objecting to Christian theism by way of appeal to the moral failures of Christians throughout history. There is real concern expressed on the part of many atheists that Christians are nasty people. This “objection” to Christian theism might be rectified by paying more careful attention to Scripture on the matter. In the context of debate the concern has nothing to do with the objective case which can be made for atheism or Christian theism as philosophical systems. It is worth noting here again that the arguments people may have in mind if they intend to object to this point are objective in nature. It is also worth noting that Christians (and ‘Christian apologists’ in particular) are not herein granted license to sin.

It has been said many times that Dr. Gordon Stein “came to a different debate” when he debated Bahnsen. At this point in the commentary it may be helpful to point out one example of why people might make this assertion. Rather than engaging Bahnsen on what he actually argues in the portions of his opening statement discussed above Stein attempts to correct Bahnsen much, much later on in the debate.

I would first like to make one little factual rebuttal (to) a statement that slipped by in the first speech of Dr. Bahnsen – that atheists caused the French Revolution. This is a false statement. The leader of the French Revolution was Robespierre who was a Christian. There may have been atheists there, but that doesn’t mean they caused the French Revolution. There are atheists everywhere.

The historical claims made by Stein that Robespierre was “the leader of the French Revolution” and “a Christian” might be questioned (though I grant them here and leave this to a historian). The theological claim that Robespierre was a Christian might also be questioned. It is irrelevant that there “are atheists everywhere”. That there “may have been atheists there” does not “mean they caused the French Revolution,” but it does not mean that they did not cause it either. Much more importantly Bahnsen never stated that atheists caused the French Revolution. Bahnsen did not even necessarily imply that atheists “caused” the French Revolution. Rather he mentioned “atheist involvement in the Reign of Terror.” Bahnsen is only providing this as an example. Others might be provided. Not only does this comment from Stein not fit the context of the remainder of his portion of the debate at this point but it does not address what Bahnsen actually said. Most importantly Stein’s comment misses the entire point of what Bahnsen said. That Stein cares enough about a supposedly false supposed statement which alleges moral failure on the part of atheists of history to address it at this point in the debate raises suspicions about whether or not Stein is doing exactly what Bahnsen warned against in his opening statement. The debate is not about atheist involvement in the French Revolution as is easily inferred from Bahnsen’s concluding remark on this point.

The question is not whether the adherents to these systems have lived spotless lives, but whether atheism or Christian theism as philosophical systems are objectively true. And so I’ll be defending Christian theism, and I’ll be defending it as a philosophical system.

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