Twenty Years ago tonight: The Bahnsen/Stein Debate

Twenty Years ago tonight: The Bahnsen/Stein Debate

Dear Friends –

I was certainly past ten years of age, but not quite at age eleven, on that absolutely glorified night twenty years ago that my late father, and former pastor, and certain hero, Dr. Greg Bahnsen, wiped up the floor with Dr. Gordon Stein in the now well-known debate over the existence of a Christian God. Of course, he hated descriptions of the debate that used rhetoric like I used (“wiped up the floor”), as he knew that it was unnecessarily arrogant and belligerent. I asked him over two dozen times in my life what he thought of his performance that night, and I honestly do not recall ever getting any more than this out of him: “I think I faithfully defended our faith.”

Indeed, he did.

Perhaps at age ten (and a half) I was too young to properly discern what took place that evening, but I can honestly say I have heard the debate since then in its entirety over 30 times. Unlike some of my dear friends, I do not think I have it all memorized, but I do think I can now say what the very secular speech & debate experts attending the event that night said: “He wiped up the floor with him”.

But a thoroughly Christian apologetic is not about “wiping up the floor”, and that debate will never be remembered that way. Dr. Stein was not a stupid person, and he did not spend the evening talking about how much he hated God (instead of arguing for why he did not believe God existed). I believe, with Paul, that ultimately Dr. Stein’s views come down to his dislike (i.e. rebellion against) God, but Dr. Stein certainly tried to do more than simply express his dislike of what God had done. No, it was years later until my dad had to endure that misery, and that was the Bahnsen/Tabash debate in Northern California of the early 1990’s. Now that opponent (a liberal Jewish ACLU attorney) had no business talking about whether or not God existed; he was way too mad at the God he said did not exist to ever publicly discuss Him. But in the case of Dr. Stein, I still believe to this day that he really believed he was able to dismantle Christian defenses for the existence of God. Indeed, he told my dad, “I have always ripped apart your classical defenses” … But February 11, 1985, was a special night. To my knowledge, it is one of the only Christian theism debates that is recorded wherein a credible proponent of theism utilized a Van Tillian line of thinking, and did so in a simply fantastic fashion.

In Dr. Stein’s defense, he didn’t know what hit him. He was caught with his pants down (or at least with his note cards seeming unhelpful), and the basic transcendental approach that my dad loved so much was way, way too much for this secularist to deal with. He could not have messed up more than in his very first few sentences of opening statement, wherein he asserted (as an attempted comeback to my dad’s jab at his dissertation on “Japanese quail”) that my dad’s own dissertation on Self Deception also had nothing to do with atheism … Alas, he fell into the trap before the debate had even begun. I would contend to this day that my dad’s doctoral dissertation subject (USC), is the entire heart of the matter. But perhaps I am begging the question .. No matter what, though, it was clear from the outset that Dr. Stein came unprepared to deal with what was dished out to him that evening.

I think about my father and his legacy more than probably anyone on the planet does. I cherish him as a man, a leader, a pastor, a scholar, a father, and a friend. I cringe when I see what some people who claim to respect him say and do, at times. In his life, and since his passing, I have listened to as many sermons of his as anyone has, yet I really do believe that this Feb. 11, 1985, event ranks amongst his most faithful defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In thought, word, and deed, he dismantled the arguments of the city of man, and portrayed them to be exactly what they were: theft from our own worldview, wrapped up in rebellion. He exposed the internal contradictions of the atheist viewpoint in a way that still brings tears to my eyes. He loved His God, and this evening, he really showed it. I will never, ever forget it.

As my mother was driving us home that evening, we ran into a dear friend of my father’s in the parking lot (we were exiting via car; he and his fiance were heading towards theirs) … When my mother rolled down the window to say goodbye, he said to her, “He did so much more tonight than philosophically defend God’s existence. He proclaimed the gospel. I had to hold back tears” [exact words are not available in my fallible memory; I remember the gist of it like it was yesterday]. Therein lies the rub … This was not a mere academic exercise for my father; it was defending the hope that is in us. He was an especially gifted debater (trust me; I was his teenage son at one point). But he was an even more gifted apologist for the triune God who created the heavens and earth.

My first son will be born any day now (perhaps not on the exact anniversary of this debate event). I hope beyond words that I can faithfully present Christ to my son the way my dad to me, not only in this event I memorialize tonight, but in his entire life and ministry. He was the best I ever knew, fallible as he was. Share this debate with your family and friends. Listen to it yourself. As Dr. Van Til said to my dad face-to-face, just five feet away from my ear-shod in the summer of 1985, “it is never about winning, Greg. It is just about exposing their inconsistency. God does everything else. Never forget the antithesis” (Philadelphia, 1985, some student’s living room).

Indeed, He does. May we never forget the antithesis ourselves ..