In this book, the 25 year-old Bahnsen undertakes a lengthy refutation of Gordon Clark's apologetic method. As those of you who read this blog may know, I'm an admirer of Clark's contributions. That being said, I'm not very impressed by Bahnsen's criticisms. Since many presuppositional followers of Van Til and Bahnsen will consider this newest work the definitive word on Gordon Clark's method, I wish to do my part to give Clark a fighting chance, since he is no longer alive to defend himself, and his chief defender, John Robbins, has also recently deceased.
In the interest of brevity without the sacrifice of thoroughness, I'm going to treat each quotation one at a time, one per blog post.
The first quote appears on p. 142 of Bahnsen's book, and is from Clark's book, Historiography: Secular and Religious (from here on, HS&R):
That religion or Christianity in particular furnishes a better method than secularism is a possibility not to be dismissed without discussion. (p. 232 in the 1971 edition, p. 213 in the 1994 edition I have)
Bahnsen argues that Clark’s use of the words “better” and “possibility” as incomplete in stating the impossibility of a non-Christian worldview. He also indicts Clark for calling the end of non-Christian systems “human despair,” rather than meaninglessness.
Despite his claim to take a “charitable” reading of his opponents, Bahnsen does not take sufficient care with the manner of expression Clark has chosen in HS&R. The remark occurs at the beginning of Clark’s chapter outlining Augustine’s Christian construction of history. This chapter appears after the first seven chapters (more than half of the book), where Clark has been criticizing unbelieving viewpoints. The second half of the book is not simply an exposition of Clark’s own view, but of several ostensibly religious or Christian views, upon which Clark himself will level criticism. Bahnsen is criticizing Clark for failing to push the issue, whereas Clark’s aim is not to assert his position, but to engage in criticism of incomplete Christian views! The term "Christian" in Clark's usage is more general than Bahnsen's reading would suggest. Clark is not yet promoting his own apologetic position, but preparing the reader to engage several Christian constructions, which he himself will criticize.
As for the remark about despair being somehow a less complete refutation than meaninglessness, Bahnsen is simply splitting hairs. Elsewhere, in A Christian View of Men and Things (from here on, CVMT), Clark repeats in similar language the problem of any non-Christian viewpoint:
The two views [secular and Christian], however, have been sketched, as two pictures in outline. If the secular view is chosen, history has no significance [and without significance, what meaning?]; human hopes and fears are to be swallowed up in oblivion; and all men, good, evil, and indifferent, come to the same end. Anyone who chooses this view must base his life on unyielding despair. (p.57 of the 1998 edition)
Now perhaps Bahnsen prefers to use “meaningless” over “no significance” and “unyielding despair,” but can any reasonable and charitable reading argue that there is a substantial difference in the perceived outcome of the non-Christian view? Meaninglessness and despair appear synonymous rather than antithetical or incompatible.