|The Standard Bearer:
A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen
by Steve M. Schlissel
Volume 13, Issue 10
November marked the publication of The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen. This is a book appearing seven years too late. Tugging at the heart of each contributor is the sadness that Greg L. Bahnsen did not live to receive this as a thank-you gift from our hands. Still, we are gratified to present this volume to the Christian community in honor of Greg’s memory. And though it’s been seven years since we’ve laid Greg’s body to rest, it may only be with the appearance of this festschrift that some misunderstandings and misconceptions about Greg will also be put to rest.
One of these concerns the breadth of his competence. Rodgers and Hart wrote about a singer: "Johnny could only sing one note, And the note he sings was this…" There were many who thought Greg to be another Johnny One-note. How revealing that they did not agree on what that one-note was!
Some thought it was theonomy. (Perhaps more than some.) Greg occasionally wondered out loud if the publication of Theonomy In Christian Ethics didn’t become more of a chain than a launching pad. He experienced the frustration felt by musicians who, after having a huge hit, are virtually forbidden to appear in public without singing that song, despite a hefty repertoire just busting to be performed. The density and cogency of Greg’s arguments in Theonomy elicited a band of responses from across the theological spectrum. Because of his respect for others and his concern for the truth, Greg felt obliged to reply to virtually all of his substantive critics. At times, this left little room for the display of competence he had achieved in other areas. Thus the notion that his "one note" was theonomy.
But others heard a different note emanating from Greg. Not a few thought he was all about eschatology. His defense of postmillennialism was so powerful that some amillennialists appeared to have taken personal offense, though none was intended. Greg found postmillennial points in Scripture, in Reformed writers and Reformed confessions, as well as in the church’s received hymnody. The church sings, "No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He’s come to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found." This could not be sung with anything resembling faith if, at the same time, we actually believed that sin and sorrow would reign until the end of history.
There were those who thought Greg’s one-note to be philosophy. That was, after all, the subject for which he had earned his doctorate from the University of Southern California. His comprehension of philosophical issues was happily paired with an ability to demonstrate the importance of the subject for Christians. He employed that ability at every opportunity, helping seasoned saints, and high-schoolers, too, see that the intellectual high ground belonged to the Living God and His people.
Still others thought Greg could think of nothing other than apologetics. They attended debates—or heard the tapes—where opponents of Christianity had their positions exposed as groundless. His gracious spirit sought always to leave intact the integrity of his opponent, for the opponent, too, was an image-bearer of God; but Greg was (sometimes painfully) thorough in tearing apart the falsehoods used by opponents against the proper claims of Jehovah. He’d seek to remove the pits from the peaches without touching the fuzz. His success in debate made Greg a hero for many, a knight appointed by God to wear armor furnished by the Word and hammered by Van Til. He was a "David" sent by the Lord to intellectually defend the truths of God in full sight of the anti-intellectual and anti-truth Philistines of our generation.
“It is written!”
It would appear that Greg Bahnsen could not have been a Johnny One-note, since so many disagreed on what note he was playing. But the truth is that he was a Johnny One-note. It’s just that his one note was not theonomy, nor was it eschatology; it wasn’t philosophy, and it wasn’t apologetics either. It was the Word of God. With Groen van Prinsterer, Greg could say, "Over against all the wisdom of men and in awareness of my own frailty, I have as the earnest of victory (just these) words: It is written!"
A symphony is often but the complex development of a simple theme. It was this theme—It is written!—which wended its way into one area after another in the life and work of Greg Bahnsen. In the first movement it may have sounded like theonomy; in the second like eschatology. But it was never anything other than a development of that simple theme played so resoundingly, so beautifully, so plainly at the Reformation: It is written!
Greg was not interested in being a soloist: he saw himself as joining a chorus of voices. In this, too, there were misperceptions. Greg is sometimes perceived as a provincial Presbyterian. While his first ecclesiastical love was certainly the Presbyterian church, a case could be made that his thinking was thoroughly Continental Reformed. The two streams were certainly present in his mentor: Cornelius Van Til. Though born and raised Christian Reformed, Van Til was for much of his life a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But Greg’s thinking was more akin to Reformed thought than many may realize. This can be seen in several spheres.
The “continental flavor” of Bahnsen’s thought
First, a distinguishing feature of Greg’s formulations on theonomy concerned the divine obligation resting upon the State to be Christian. This involved two controversial components: the propriety of the death penalty for "First Table" violations, and the explicit bias of the civil magistrate for the true Christian religion. The Continental Reformed Standards favor Bahnsen’s views at several locations. For example, in its exposition of the Third Commandment at Question and Answer 100 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the death penalty is invoked as the proper punishment for blasphemy: "No sin is greater, no sin makes God more angry than blaspheming His name. That is why He commanded the death penalty for it." Further, concerning kings, princes and civil magistrate, Article 36 of the original Belgic Confession read, "Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted."
Second, Greg’s postmillennial expectation was in precise harmony with that of Herman Witsius, the Dutch commentator and "father of covenant theology." Witsius rejected all views of Romans 11 which deny a future restoration of the Jews to the faith. Interestingly, Witsius explicitly refuted the notion which has recently re-emerged as part of hyper-preterism, viz., that the fulfillment of Romans 11 occurred in AD 70. "Such absurd imaginations are contrary to the light of all history." For Bahnsen, the re-ingrafting of the Jews is a critical, still future event, just as Witsius described it:
About the time of the conversion of the Jews, the Gentile world will be like a dead person, in manner almost as Christ describes the church of Sardis, Rev. iii:1,2, namely, both that light of saving knowledge and that fervent piety, and that lively and vigorous simplicity of ancient Christianity will, in a course of years, be very much impaired. Many nations, who had formerly embraced the Gospel with much zeal, afterwards almost to be extinguished by the venom of mahometanism [talk about prescient!—sms], popery, libertinism, and atheism, would verify this prophecy: but upon the restoration of the Jews, these will suddenly arise, as out of the grave: a new light will shine upon them, a new zeal be kindled up; the life of CHRIST be again manifested in his mystical body, more lively, perhaps, and vigorous, than ever. Then, doubtless, many Scripture prophecies will, after their accomplishment, be better understood; and such as now appear dark riddles, shall then be found to contain a most distinct description of facts…For while the Gospel was published now to this, then to that nation, others gradually departed from CHRIST; but when the fullness of Jews is come, it is altogether probable, that these nations will in great number return to CHRIST.
Bahnsen and van Prinsterer
Third, Greg’s pervasive view of covenant was clearly indebted to Dutch thought. His covenant consciousness far exceeded that which is found in the seventh chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, true and valuable as that is. Van Til thought of himself as building upon the thought of Kuyper and Bavinck, and Kuyper had built on the thought of Groen van Prinsterer. It was Groen’s mid-nineteenth century work, Unbelief and Revolution, which so powerfully set forth the idea of the Antithesis that would eventually control Greg Bahnsen’s Biblical, covenantal thinking. If man did not live in terms of God’s sovereignty, he would be consigned to live under man’s tyranny. Greg begged the church to understand that the alternative to God’s covenant Law was not grace, but chaos. Hear Groen make the same point:
"Just as all truth rests upon the truth that is from God, so the common foundation of all rights and duties lies in the sovereignty of God. When that sovereignty is denied or (what amounts to the same thing) banished to heaven because His kingdom is not of this world, what becomes then of the fountain of authority, of law, of every sacred and dutiful relation in state, society and family? What sanction remains for the distinctions of rank and station in life? What reason can there be that I obey and another commands, that the one is needy, the other rich? All this is custom, routine, abuse, injustice, oppression… Eliminate God, and it can no longer be denied that all men are, in the revolutionary sense of the words, free and equal. State and society disintegrate, for there is a principle of dissolution at work that does not cease to operate until all further division is frustrated by that indivisible unit, that isolated human being, the individual— a term of the Revolution’s naively expressive of its all-destructive character."
Bahnsen on Christian education
Fourth, in his commitment to Christian education for covenant youth, Greg Bahnsen very clearly aligned himself with the Continental tradition, which regards failure to provide Christian education as a disciplinable offense. Sadly, the American Presbyterian world has largely abandoned the dedication to Christian education once seen in men like A.A. Hodge and J. G. Machen. The church I serve, Messiah’s Congregation, had commissioned Greg to briefly articulate for us the Biblical imperative to provide faithful education. He wrote a statement entitled, “Keeping Covenant with God in the Education of Our Children.”
As a confession of our faith, testimony to the world, and instruction to all true believers, the elders of this church have determined to record here our heartfelt and Biblically based conviction that the Lord has appointed to parents the responsibility and final authority to secure, guide and control the education of their children, that they might be trained regarding this world and in all areas of life to think God’s thoughts after Him and walk in all His ways.
Man was created, as God’s likeness and for God’s glory, to study, subdue and develop the world in which God placed him (Gen. 1: 26-28). Naturally, from the very beginning, it was a task which belonged to parents to instill this perspective in their children and help them to pursue it.
Ethical rebellion against God has resulted in a curse on mankind (Gen. 3: 17-19) which is experienced not only spiritually (Rom. 8: 5-8; Eph. 2: 1-4) but also intellectually (Rom. 1: 21-22; 1 Cor. 2: 14; Eph. 4: 17-18), and which introduces an unavoidable antithesis between those antagonistic to God and those who belong to the promised Savior (Gen. 3: 15).
The task of pursuing proper knowledge of the world and developing a God-glorifying culture therein thus encounters tremendous obstacles and distortions, making it imperative that parents educate their children within the perspective and power of God’s revelation and grace. The redemption which Christ has secured for us saves us, not only spiritually, from the wrath to come, but also delivers us from intellectual futility and foolish reasoning in our methods of learning about the world in which we presently live.
Genuine knowledge of any subject whatsoever begins with reverence and submission to God (Prov. 1: 7), particularly the fundamentals and philosophy which adhere to the Lord Jesus Christ rather than the fallen world or human traditions (Col. 2: 8; 1 Tim. 6: 20). It is the word of God which sets apart His people in the truth (John 17: 17). Thus neutrality in education is not only impossible (Matt. 12: 30), but immoral (Jas. 4: 4). Accordingly, the aim of Christian parents must be to encourage their children to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10: 5), in whom are deposited all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2: 3). Only if they are first disciples of Christ will they know the truth and enjoy real freedom (John 8: 31-32).
Therefore, from the very beginning of history, then especially with the introduction of man’s rebellion against God, and as well in light of the fundamental nature of any genuine knowledge, it is a parental duty to train and educate their children, regardless of the subject matter, in the nurture of the Lord and the light of His revelation (Eph. 6: 4; Prov. 5: 1-2; Ps. 36: 9; 119: 105, 130).
The responsibility rehearsed here has been part of the confession of faith of God’s people form the earliest days, indeed a primary application of the first and great commandment (Deut. 6: 4-5; cf. Matt. 22: 37-38). It constitutes a central element in what it means for those who are saved to keep covenant with God: "And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently unto your children"—constantly and consistently, in every time and place, covering all the spheres of human thought, activity and living (Deut. 6: 6-9). Note is taken that this responsibility has been assigned directly by God to parents, rather than any other institution of society.
Regardless, then, of whatever children learn—from math and science to history, social studies, literature and the arts— parents have a God-given duty to see to it that their children learn it, as much as is possible (given the resources and opportunities available to their parents), with the perspective and application of the Christian worldview as derived from God’s revelation. It is and shall be the policy of this church by instruction, preaching and pastoral care to inculcate this educational responsibility in our parents, directing and helping them to walk in God’s gracious covenant as faithful disciples of Christ. [see http://www.messiahnyc.org/article.php?sid=127]
“Not a school, but a covenant”
Fifth (and last), Greg’s perspective on the character of Scripture is rooted in the historic perspective found among the Continental Reformed. Though Bahnsen would not agree with the eschatology of Geerhardus Vos, he would certainly agree with Vos’s rejection of Hellenic categories in the reading/hearing of Scripture: "God’s self-revelation to us was not made for a primarily intellectual purpose. [That] would not be the full-orbed religion at which, as a whole, revelation aims. It is true, the Gospel teaches that to know God is life eternal. But the concept of ‘knowledge’ here is not to be understood in its Hellenic sense, but in the Shemitic sense. According to the former, ‘to know’ means to mirror the reality of a thing in one’s consciousness. The Shemitic and Biblical idea is to have the reality of something practically interwoven with the inner experience of life. Hence ‘to know’ can stand in the Biblical idiom for ‘to love’, ‘to single out in love’. Because God desires to be known after this fashion, He has caused His revelation to take place in the milieu of the historical life of a people. The circle of revelation is not a school, but a ‘covenant’. To speak of revelation as an ‘education’ of humanity is a rationalistic and utterly un-scriptural way of speaking. All that God disclosed of Himself has come in response to the practical religious needs of His people as these emerged in the course of history."
Thus, if there is one note we hear again and again from Greg Bahnsen, it is the one quoted by van Prinsterer: "It is written!" Because Greg began and ended his thinking with God’s Word, he found it second-nature to seek to apply it to every realm of life. This is a peculiarly Dutch way of receiving the Scripture. (Though he was of Danish descent, his name might well have been Greg L. VanderBahnsen.) The festschrift compiled in his honor is but an extension of the applications he began to make during his brief but oh-so-brilliant life. It was an honor to have been permitted to serve as editor of this volume. Let me know what you think of the essays (write to firstname.lastname@example.org). Articles in the festschrift include:
"The Life of Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen," by David L. Bahnsen, Dr. Bahnsen’s middle son, a Financial Advisor at UBS Paine Webber in Newport Beach, CA.
"Covenantal Antithesis," by Randy Booth, Director of Covenant Media Foundation, and pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Nacogdoches, TX.
"The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence," by Michael R. Butler, apologetics professor at Bahnsen Theological Seminary.
"Ruler of the Nations," by Kevin Clauson, President of Christ College in Lynchburg, VA.
"A Revelation of the Revelation" and "Theonomy and Confession," by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Dean of Faculty and Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Classical College in Elkton, MD.
"Tangential or Mainstream: Bahnsen’s View of Church and State," by Rev. Lonn Oswalt, who teaches New Testament History at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
"Faith versus Ideology," by P. Andrew Sandlin, Founder and President of Center for Cultural Leadership.
"Theonomic Precedent in the Theology of John Calvin," by Chris Strevel, Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Buford, GA.
"Putting Contexts in Their Place," by James J. Tyne, an attorney and Elder of Messiah’s Congregation in Brooklyn, NY.
"Ecclesiastic Consequences of Theonomic Presuppositionalism," by Jeffery J. Ventrella, an attorney and Vice President of the Alliance Defense Fund.
"A Study in Apologetic Preaching," by Roger Wagner, Pastor of Bayview OPC in Chula Vista, CA.