Dr. Bahnsen on Plantinga: Sit Down

Posted: August 9, 2014 in Reformed Epistemology
Tags: , , ,

One of the pressing questions in contemporary Presuppositionalist conversations is how Van Tillians are to take the work of Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology.  And as one of Presuppositionalisms greatest proponents, Dr. Bahnsen’s views on the matter are interesting, if a bit enigmatic.

It would be great if we had a lecture series from Bahnsen formally dedicated to expounding on Plantinga in light of Van Til.  Instead, we are left trying to either piece together his view from off-hand statements in many of his lectures, or from what his friends (like Michael Butler and John Frame) have said about Plantinga.[1]

Dr. Bahnsen makes many off-hand statements concerning Plantinga throughout his lectures and I can’t re-post them all here.  But one in particular is interesting (and a bit humorous) because it hints at how Bahnsen may have seen Plantinga’s work in the context of a Presuppositional apologetic.  What follows is from lecture 6 of “Michael Martin Under the Microscope”, starting at about 9:40.  I’ll provide footnotes for contextual clarity (when needed):

So yeah, he [Michael Martin – AD] does consider Plantinga.[2]  Though Plantinga’s not a transcendentalist, those elements of presuppositional function that you see in Plantinga or you see in Wittgenstenian fideism he [Martin – AD] never puts into a transcendental position.  In fact, you’ll notice:  he dismisses both Wittgenstein and Plantinga ultimately on the same grounds, that they reduce to relativism.

Here’s my comeback:

I’m not a fideist as he’s interpreted it and I’m not a full-fledged Wittgensteinian and I’m not a full follower of Plantinga, but you know, they *could* defend themselves.  They could say “Ok, our approach to religious epistemology or language reduces to relativism.  And your worldview affirms relativism, so no problem!”[3]

You see, it’s at that point he’s going to say “I’m no relativist!”  And that’s when Dr. Van Til steps forward and says, “…now listen.  Plantinga, sit down!  At this point we need to get beyond what you’re doing and now talk about transcendentals.

I realize Martin will claim he’s not a relativist, but my challenge is, you can’t make sense of your objectivism.  Given your worldview you should be a relativist, and if you are or should be a relativist, then you shouldn’t complain when Plantinga or Wittgenstein turn out to be relativists![4]

You see – it’s always a matter of taking what the unbeliever gives you and choking him with his own theory.



1.  See Michael Butler’s lecture series on Epistemology available from Covenant Media; he directly interacts with Reformed Epistemology from a Van Tillian perspective.  Also, see John Frame’s appendix on Reformed Epistemology in “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God”.  Also – consider James Anderson’s use of Plantinga’s “warrant” model in “Paradox and Christian Theology”.  Anderson’s work is probably the best place for a presuppositionalist to begin when trying to understand how to appropriate Plantinga’s work into a Van Tillian framework.

2.  In his critique of Michael Martin, Bahnsen notes that the most important argument for Christianity (TAG) is never addressed.  Thus, Bahnsen goes through Martin’s material and finds arguments against Christian positions that come closest to a Van Tillian presentation, even if they’re not quite transcendental.  In this case, he’s noting that Martin has some criticisms of Plantinga and will demonstrate that Plantinga can simply presuppose Martin’s position to escape the charge of relativism.

3. One of the critiques of Plantinga’s epistemology is that it reduces to relativism and fideism.  This charge is contested by followers of Plantinga.  Dr. Bahnsen is no-doubt aware of this discussion and should not be understood here as endorsing one side of the debate or the other.  All he’s saying is that Plantinga COULD, for the sake of argument, accept being called a relativist because on Martin’s view, there’s nothing wrong with relativism – or at least, Martin accepts relativism sometimes but other times wants to deny it.

Still – it is popular to characterize Plantinga (and externalist theories of justification) in such a way that the application to Van Tillianism has a surface-level plausibility when applied in the way Dr. Bahnsen does above.

4. In earlier lectures, Michael Martin’s implicit advocacy for a sort of “relativistic” epistemology was highlighted.  I’d like to make a plug here, that the entire “Michael Martin Under the Microscope” series is well worth the time and money.


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