Still the Gold Standard: Dr. Greg Bahnsen in Debate

My friend Jon Sturm published a great guest article on the debate between an atheist, Alex Rosenberg, and a Christian, William Lane Craig, at Purdue University last week (video of the full debate here). They debated the question “Is Faith In God Reasonable?” I appreciated Jon’s post and hope only to add my perspective to several of his points and then make one recommendation for every Christian involved in evangelism and apologetics.  

First, Christians need to give our culture more credit for its attention span. As my children and I walked through the freezing cold to Purdue’s Elliott Hall of Music, we were preceded by a group of young women whose prayer bonnets revealed their Anabaptist heritage. When we reached the door, a young man wearing thick eye-shadow and a troubled look on his face graciously held the door for us. People from many nations filled the concourses. While standing in line, we talked with a man who began to seek the Lord as a result of hearing Dr. Craig debate in the same venue in 2004. He was back for more. Talk about a robust mix of souls! When the doors opened, we watched somewhere between four and six thousand people stream in to eagerly sit and listen for over two hours without an intermission. People want to know the truth. Solid material presented well keeps people glued to their seats. Preachers, take note!

Second, Dr. Craig, the Christian, presented his material well, as Jon Sturm noted. His opening twenty minute statement reached the average person, even if it was filled with philosophically deep vocabulary. He argued from an evidentialist platform, and smoothly handled his prepared material on cosmological and related arguments. In contrast, Dr. Rosenberg nervously drank water as he began his disjointed opening statement with a few minutes of complaint about the format. Then, he rambled in the philosophical wilderness for ten-plus minutes. He did not speak the language of the people…until about the last three minutes. Then, he noted that the question of the existence of evil was personal for him. Dr. Rosenberg’s parents survived the holocaust, but Hitler exterminated the rest of his family, including two half-siblings. He directly pleaded for Dr. Craig to answer how faith in God could be reasonable given such evil. I sensed a shift in the audience – genuine sympathy…now he was speaking our language, the language of the human heart.

Third, Dr. Craig failed to minister effectively to the person, which Jon also addressed. His initial rebuttal returned to prepared material, rather than answer Dr. Rosenberg’s plea. The audience knew Dr. Craig had better material, but it was waiting to hear him answer the real question! Because he did not, he failed to speak the language of the people. In his rebuttal, Dr. Rosenberg’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice displayed more anger than ever with a God he does not believe exists. Dr. Craig later invited him to faith, but it seemed to me that Dr. Craig’s evidentialist approach did not allow him to step away from his prepared remarks in the opportune moment and simply speak truth to the heart. Dr. Craig’s Molinism also undercut his ability to compellingly answer Dr. Rosenberg’s questions on the problem of evil. He later sought to address Dr. Rosenberg’s concerns philosophically, but it was too late to effectively minister to the person.

I’m grateful that these men were willing to debate before us. I’m glad Dr. Craig is engaged for Christ’s sake in this difficult but important arena. Dr. Craig won the debate by a 4-2 margin in the judges’ eyes. The audience members who cast votes voted 1390-303 for Dr. Craig. However, I thought Dr. Rosenberg left without receiving a satisfactory answer to the fundamental question of his heart and mind. My sister agreed that Dr. Craig won, but she stated that she would have much rather had a cup of coffee with Dr. Rosenberg, who obviously spoke from the heart.

That night, my family returned to my parents’ farm, where the discussion continued. As others drifted off to bed, my father, sister (who attended the debate), and I sat by the fire into the wee hours and listened to the 1985 debate between Drs. Greg Bahnsen and Gordon Stein at the University of California Irvine. The question was “Does God Exist?” As we listened, my sister blurted (and tweeted): “Finally, a debate I comprehend! Gotta use the Bible.” Dr. Bahnsen used the transcendental argument as he employed the presuppositional apologetic of Cornelius Van Til. He won, to put it mildly. From them on, atheists feared him in debate. In the modern debate format, Dr. Bahnsen is still the gold-standard.

Evidences have their place. But I believe the presuppositional apologetic best sets the table to allow us to answer Dr. Rosenberg’s question regarding evil. To set the table for such answers, every Christian should learn the transcendental argument; Dr. Bahnsen teaches it best. So, set aside two hours, pull up a chair, and listen here. It’s a treat.