11 Dec In Memory of, Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen. Twenty Years Ago Today.
Twenty years ago today the doctors told us in an official way what we had known for four or five days – my dad was gone. The day was a blur. Frankly, a whole lot of the last twenty years has been a blur. My dad was very sick. He had fought a heart condition for just shy of twenty years. He had become diabetic. He had high blood pressure. He was emotionally heartbroken. And a third open-heart surgery was more than his body could bear. God wanted him up there. And that’s where he went.
I miss my dad every single day but for very different reasons than most who know his name miss him. He has “fans”, and that is because he was a brilliant scholar, apologist, and intellectual. I missed him as a public intellectual during the popular atheism craze of a decade ago when I was stunned at the deficiency of those “filling in” as the “theist du jour”. Let’s just say I wish our team had had its star player. But no matter how valuable his sermons or contributions to Christian thought were, what I miss is my dad, who was my advocate, who I have never come close to replacing that void in my life since he left. My dad was a ballbuster; he had high expectations for people; but those expectations for others were always a fraction of what he expected of himself. But when I speak of him as an advocate, you have to understand that he would have torn down walls with his bare hands for me. My adult life has lacked that advocacy, that support, that bond. At least it has lacked it in the context of what it was from him. This guy was just a warrior. You never knew someone as loyal to his friends and family as he was. He never quite understood that expecting a reciprocity of that loyalty was not realistic on this side of heaven. It took me awhile to come to a peace with that reality, and I wish he had found that. But I guess he has found a far better peace now.
Most of what I wanted to say publicly about my dad as a pastor and public figure I say below. Today, though, I just share with those who care that I miss my dad tremendously, and thank God that when so many people in my life abandoned me, he did not. When so many things in life seemed unreliable and unstable and frankly petrifying, he was there. I thank God that I got to be born to Greg Bahnsen, who passed on to me just enough of something that I had a fighting chance in this world despite all my shortcomings. And I thank God that twenty years later, somehow my life is still going, and I know that is because of the first twenty years of it which I got to spend with him. I love you dad.
I gave a speech on my dad a couple months ago that can be found here. For those interested I also provide the transcript below.
It is a blessing to be here today to address you all, and particularly fun for me to be doing this in the great city of Torrance where I was born about 41 and a half years ago. Both myself and my younger brother were born right here at Torrance Memorial in 1974 and 1975 respectively when my parents lived in Manhattan Beach and my dad was pursuing his doctoral studies at the world’s greatest university, USC, just a hop, skip, and jump away from here. There was no carpool lane on the 110 Freeway in 1974, though. But it is a pleasure to be in Torrance and an honor to be speaking to you all today about the life of Greg Bahnsen, my late father. When Chris first asked me to speak at this event which coincides with the 20th anniversary of my dad’s passing I wondered how I may present something that would be of interest to the audience who I presumed would be folks already familiar with my dad, his life, and certainly his teaching. My reflections quickly caused me to realize that I was really wrong about at least half of that: A 2015 audience that sees fit to congregate to reflect on the teachings of Greg Bahnsen and his impact in matters of theology and apologetics may very well have familiarity with his teaching, but with a few exceptions of some of you here today – very few – familiarity with his actual life is not something many would possess. Perhaps some of you have read a few tidbits over the years and others may have read the biography in his festschrift or even a Wikipedia page, but it occurred to me that if the audience were to hear something today that from me that represented new material it would likely be in the realm of his personal life – his personality, his character – the Greg Bahnsen that his friends and family knew. Don’t get me wrong – I am happy to talk about his prowess as a thought leader and public intellectual, as he had few peers in his ability to “do theology” or “dissect epistemology”. And I do not minimize any part of what he taught people over the years in the fields of theology, philosophy, apologetics, ethics, or any of the other disciplines that he was indisputably and particularly gifted in. But to maximize the effectiveness of my talk and its fruitfulness for you, I am going to primarily focus on three categories of Greg Bahnsen’s life and impact on ME that I will suggest far transcend his contribution to various academic and scholarly disciplines. Those three are:
(1) Greg Bahnsen, the Pastor
(2) Greg Bahnsen, the Person
(3) Greg Bahnsen, the Kuyperian
I suppose a fair amount may have been written about Greg Bahnsen the Pastor, and the Covenant Media Foundation has been making his sermons available for over two decades. I often think it’s a shame, not that the atheist debates and the more high-profile topical lectures generate so much interest, but that the Galatians and Luke and especially Proverbs series have not generated more. I’ve sat under a lot of pastors and heard the preaching of a lot of preachers over the years, and I am telling you that if you know Greg Bahnsen the teacher and Greg Bahnsen the lecturer but do not know Greg Bahnsen the preacher, you are missing out. My dad achieved his Th.M and his M.Div simultaneously at Westminster Seminary because he wanted to be BOTH a TEACHER, and a PASTOR. The two degrees mirrored the two callings he felt he had. He is not the first scholar, especially in the world of Reformed Theology, to have juxtaposed a career as a professor/scholar with a career as a shepherd/minister, but I will suggest to you he did both at a higher caliber than most who have tried. He wasn’t an outstanding scholar who preached mediocre sermons; he was an outstanding scholar who delivered outstanding sermons. One of my best friends lives in Connecticut, and he and I asked a pastor friend of ours on the east coast once what he thought about the preaching of another pastor we were curious about … He replied that his preaching was a little weak, but he was a great pastor. My Connecticut friend replied, “isn’t that like someone being slow, but still a great runner, perhaps because they were good at stretching?”. A good pastor is a good preacher. Mediocre preaching is not “more acceptable” when the pastor has a more impressive reading list and certainly not when they are skilled at running a session meeting (who after all, wants to be good at THAT?). My dad believed that preaching mattered, and he prepared for his sermons with passion and energy. I will be very honest with you, because you don’t know this about him the way I do, but if my dad did not open his Bible, open a commentary, prepare an outline, or so much as jot a note down, and he walked up to a pulpit like a stand-up comic on IMPROV night, he could have delivered a sermon that would blow most away. He just had that skill – quick on his feet, unprecedented command of the material, especially when that material was the Word of God, and great oratory confidence. But he didn’t approach the pulpit with that kind of self-assurance and nonchalance. He poured himself into preparation, and he had real God-given talent as a preacher. I am not one to critique a preacher around subjective style preferences: I accept that different preachers have different styles, and different congregants have different preferences. I could name many different preachers that I would all classify as excellent despite them each having totally different styles from one another. Some of you may have liked his style as a preacher and some may not have, but within his style and method of delivery, he was truly gifted. He was expositional, and still topical; he was passionate, and still sober; he was eloquent, and still convicting. But just as much as I believe a good pastor will be a good preacher, I do not believe that a good preacher is necessarily going to be a good pastor. Greg Bahnsen came from this ancient period of American history where not every pastor was tasked with becoming a celebrity. He held to this prehistoric view that a pastor was a shepherd, and was to be engaged in the life of his congregation. This approach likely does doom one to a low ceiling in terms of church growth, but I will tell you that in the heyday of Covenant Community Church – let’s call it 1985-1989 – there was a really tight congregation that was shepherded and fed. I think of those years fondly.
My dad was a Presbyterian minister and his ordination and lifetime pastoral ministry resided in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I am not going to use my speech to posit my own views on church government or any particular denomination or tradition; you all want to hear about Greg Bahnsen, not what David Bahnsen thinks. But what I will say is that, for right or for wrong, Greg Bahnsen was loyal to his Presbyterian belief system and died still in a very traditional fidelity to what many have believed for generations it means to be a Presbyterian. He was a loyal churchman, whatever that means, and I can tell you that personal sacrifice and suffering did not get in the way of that. A great preacher, a real Presbyterian churchman, and a true shepherd.
I will not delve too deeply today into the details of the marital counseling he did over the years that absolutely transformed and sometimes preserved or restored marriages. But he did this because he viewed it as his calling to care for the folks he was responsible for in terms of spiritual oversight. It was not formula-driven counseling or stoic lecturing – it was a matter of personal investment for him. You don’t get to know about the impact he had on personal lives as a shepherd by reading his Van Til book, as masterful as the book was. What I want people to know today about Greg Bahnsen is that he grieved when his congregation grieved, and he rejoiced when they rejoiced. He wanted his congregation to flourish. It is one of the great memories I have of my dad, the pastor.
I went through a phase after his 1995 passing where I felt bad for him for ever getting “sucked into the ministry”. I knew it had taken its toll on him emotionally, and he did fight various denominational battles his whole life. He endured a painful church split a few years before he died, and he didn’t necessarily get to enjoy respite as an overseer of a church. I felt for a period of time that had he just skipped that portion of his adult life, he would have found greater peace and happiness and still great fulfillment and calling, exclusively as a thought leader. But that phase of resentment didn’t last long. I may wish certain parts of his ecclesiastical life had gone differently, but I know God wanted Greg Bahnsen to be a shepherd, and He used him tremendously in that calling.
My comments about Greg Bahnsen as a friend, father, and person are meant to be the core of my talk today, and I will do my best to move at an efficient pace. I want to offer a little caveat before I dig deeply into this. If anyone either listening today or hearing or reading this speech later was hoping for a little “dirt” – a little info on the “skeletons in the closet”, so to speak – they will likely be very disappointed. For one thing, if I sat down one on one with my closest friends in the world and shared every nook and cranny of my family history with them, which I have actually done many times, it would not be excited or TMZ-worthy whatsoever. Greg Bahnsen didn’t have big secrets, and I don’t have big dirt to share. He was not a perfect person, but I sort of take for granted that everyone knows that. He had faults and shortcomings, and that’s about the most you’ll get out of me. I have read Chris Buckley’s posthumous treatment of his father, the incomparable William F. Buckley, and I have read the unforgivable material on Francis Schaeffer penned by the contemptible Franky Schaeffer. I hold my dad in tremendous regard, I have spent 20 years honoring his legacy, and I am going to talk more of what that means in a moment. I do not lionize him or deify him, and I knew him better than anyone in this room or anyone who will ever read or hear this speech. So yes, I am perfectly comfortable saying he had faults, but beyond that it strikes me as perfectly unnecessary to say any more.
I really believe a lot of the people who most appreciate Greg Bahnsen’s teaching ministry and scholarly abilities would be really disappointed to understand what actually drove him sociologically. Let’s just say he strongly held to the theological tenets of today’s Reformed theology, but very few of the sociological tenets. That is particularly true of Greg Bahnsen compared to the sociological tenets of what many have called Reconstructionism over the years. He possessed an intense approach to his work – he was rigorous, disciplined, and basically obsessive (though I mean that as a total compliment, believe me). However, his “off time” was not filled with a Van Til book or a long conversation about the Pentateuch. He read Tom Clancy novels, he listened to rock n’ roll like it was going out of business, and he enjoyed food as much as anyone you will ever meet in your life. He loved Southern California, both the LA County he grew up in, and the Orange County he lived in as an adult (besides three forgettable years in Jackson, Mississippi). That LA County/Orange County shared life is why I forgive him for being BOTH a Dodger fan AND an Angel fan, something no one else in the world is allowed to be as far as THIS Angel fan is concerned. If you ever drove with him, you know that he did not seem to be very constrained by speed limit laws. So when some rather kooky people have come to me over the years planning an overthrow of the government or some such nonsense and looking for a Greg Bahnsen-stamped approval of their insanity, I have always had to say, “Sorry, but unless you’re talking about speed limit laws, you wouldn’t have my dad on your side.” This is actually more than a merely anecdotal subject in dad’s life (the fringe stuff – not his love of driving fast). My dad was in a world that had a lot of “fringe” components to it, but he wasn’t a “fringe” kind of guy, if you follow me. He was so respected as a theologian, and found himself in such an odd world at times, that people loved to come to him for support on their various tax protest or underground currency movements. They literally just could not believe his response when he shot them down with utter conviction and sobriety. I spent years reading every single letter, every piece of paper, every file, in my dad’s vast personal correspondence library. His patient but cool and uncompromised rejection of this kind of stuff was utterly inspiring. I really do not know how he had the patience for a lot of this – he was perhaps more patient than people give him credit for – but he didn’t suffer a fool easily. He had theological beliefs; he had friends; he had family; but he did not have a “movement” personality. It wasn’t his schtick, thank God.
When I talk about those files I spent so much time and effort devouring, there is something I want to mention to you all that has stuck with me for most of the time he has been gone. Greg Bahnsen was a person who had very, very few enemies in the unsaved world. Then correspondence between dad and Gordon Stein may have been an exception, but the treatment he received from scores and scores of ideological opponents on the OTHER side of the antithesis was nearly always filled with respect, collegiality, and poise. Frankly, the vast majority of correspondence I read with non-Reformed Christians was often the same – even if the subject of the correspondence was disagreement over a matter of ideology – respect, collegiality, warmth. The ugly stuff was always from those who were closer and closer to his various distinctives. I couldn’t explain this to you if I tried because no one has ever explained it to me. But when I talk about the way Dallas Willard, Richard Mouw, Father Neuhaus, and others interacted with him, not to mention dozens of unsaved intellectuals, it was like a different world when you start reading the correspondence with people in his own “camp”. I take that at the very least as a testimony to his scholarly caliber and his own respectful demeanor.
He spent most of his adult life with the woman he married and had his kids with, having met her in high school, married her in college, and had kids with her throughout grad school. Twenty years nearly to the day later she left him and his kids, yours truly included, and that was the end of that. It’s not a fact of his life that warrants a ton of mention today but it is public knowledge, has been written about plenty, and was a defining yet tragic part of his adult life. I talked earlier about my wondering if he really needed that “pastor” side of his vocational life, and I will certainly say that I have spent many more years wondering why he loved her as much as he did, and why he just really never did stop loving her even to his dying day. I mention it to you today not to tee up me having the chance to express my own feelings on the matter, but rather because I think it speaks to his character and nature. He was a forbearing husband, and while obviously not a perfect one, he had a threshold for pain in a relationship that exceeds what mere mortals should ever have to endure.
He was a special kind of father. He turned me on to C.S. Lewis at a young age and I never really looked back. From very, very early memories of him reading C.S. Lewis to us, to slightly later memories of him making us read C.S. Lewis to him, he transferred everything about himself into us in profound and memorable ways. I actually shudder to think what his productivity would have looked like had he actually worked and lived in an age of email, let alone the internet, let alone portable devices, social media, etc. His ability in the modern age to create content and to distribute said content would have been simply unfathomable. Think about what I just said. He died in 1995, the year Netscape introduced a web browser. He never owned a computer with Windows. He never accessed a website. He never shopped online, read online, or studied online. He never owned a laser printer. In just 20 years the world has changed THAT much. You would only be human to wonder why God took him before his scholarly abilities could have met Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Greg Bahnsen didn’t sleep a lot, but he did like his Sunday afternoon naps. I have told the story before about waking up at 6am after I got out of high school ready to beat him to my day’s tasks at hand, only to find him in his study working. I decided I would beat him the next day so I tried 5:30. Same outcome. Now bordering on misery, I pushed it to 5am, and the same result awaited me. Finally I just went for broke, got up at 4am, and decided he would find me in his office working. When I walked in at 4am and found him sitting there typing, I gave up and conceded defeat. He never knew we were in a contest. I am now an obsessive 4am start guy, and I blame him entirely. But truthfully, I don’t actually know what time he really got up. And he will ALWAYS have me beat for this reason if none other: I have had an entire cup of coffee by 4:10 am and another one by 4:30am; he never drank coffee – ever. Utterly unfathomable to me.
He hated mushrooms. He loved Chinese food. He loved going to movies, even if by himself. And his love of rock n’ roll is well-documented. I am not sure what evoked a stronger reaction: His love of “regular” rock music, or his utter contempt for “Christian” music. He was no sub-culturist. He HATED Christian music. And he could pick it out when he heard it after five seconds. He loved taking friends and family visiting Orange County to a jazz or blues band at one of his favorite night spots in Newport or Laguna Beach. Did I mention he liked driving fast? These things often went together. He didn’t drink much alcohol – a beer here, a glass of wine there, even that not very often, but it just wasn’t his thing. He didn’t do well with his mind numbed. And he frankly didn’t need it.
In the last few years of his life he had really forged some close friendships around the country, and his teaching ministry was at a strong place of impact. I have heard from more people about the impact the Bahnsen/Stein debate had on them than any other part of his recorded legacy. His scholarly contributions to apologetics are by far his most important, and it is in the area of presuppositionalism, his commitment to a thoroughly Biblical apologetic, and his proficiency as a Christian philosopher that I most earnestly hope his legacy will be remembered. Do you ever wonder why the great wave of popular new atheism led by the Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris cabal came about AFTER dad died, and THOSE debates were never able to happen? I do. God‘s ways are not mine, and His ways are perfect. But oh how I longed for my dad to be around during that 2005-2010 period when the fruit hung lowest.
I said my third category of discussion in the speech would be Greg Bahnsen, the Kuyperian, and this may be a tad unexpected because I believe most people think of him as being an heir of Calvin, of Van Til, of John Murray – all of which are very much true. He loved all three of those men, was a proficient scholar in their work, and left behind I believe the seminal works on Van Til, and truly remarkable work in the study of Calvin. He was a Calvinist and he was a Van Tillian, but I am highlighting his Kuyperianism today for the simple reason that everyone already knows of his Calvinism and presuppositionalism. He is not often described in the context of his Kuyperianism, and that ought to change.
If there was ever a guy who thought he was going to be some form of a Christian scholar it was me. Whether it was in a preaching capacity or teaching capacity, I studied theology obsessively for years and just always sort of figured my calling and greatest utility would be in some form of my father’s footsteps. But my plans had not yet encountered the depths of my dad’s Kuyperianism, and it had not encountered the rigors of his hostility to dualism. If you ever wanted to bring your rationale to my dad for why you should quit your job and enter the ministry, you better have been prepared to have had the sacred-secular distinction ripped to pieces right before your eyes and dropped on your feet. All my father ever wanted for me was to have a fulfilling life, and he would have been perfectly happy no matter how that had manifested itself. But he didn’t merely “not pressure” me to follow in his footsteps – he truly discouraged it. In this regard, I owe him the biggest favor of all, for he blessed me finding a path where I could maximize my own Kingdom usefulness, and he did this with total intentionality, total awareness, total purpose. He KNEW that God had plans for me, and he KNEW I was prone to manipulate myself into thinking it needed to be something it didn’t need to be. He cut this off at the pass, and the fruits of what he did in this regard the last year of his life have been coming off of that tree ever since. This is not a blessing because of material prosperity or the fact that I don’t have to go to Presbytery meetings, though I wouldn’t complain about either of those things either. It is a blessing because it helped to define identity and purpose and meaning in my life, and it did so from the core of his very worldview – his belief that God was in all of the universe, that God wanted the whole culture, not a substitute culture, and that the need of the hour was not more people talking about Christian dominion, but rather more people doing it. I think about that aspect of my dad almost every single day. He knew as the great Kuyper did that Christ had laid claim to all, and He wanted us to start acting like it.
If you hear anything out of my speech today about Greg Bahnsen, hear this. This was a man who could have done absolutely anything he wanted to do in his life. He was just one of those people. I have met a couple others like that, too, and they always provoke the same sort of head-shaking awe. It is just a super-human level of skill and discipline and drive that warrants one being described in this way. Obviously it is a non-falsifiable statement: He didn’t become a lawyer or a software engineer, so no one can prove that he couldn’t have excelled in those fields. But I am telling you that there isn’t an ounce of doubt in my body that he could have called his number in life. His was the sort of determination and resolve that is nearly pathological, and yet he applied his rigor without a dysfunctional pathology, but actually a really special balance and normalcy. It was a blessing that I can never repay to have grown up observing it.
I have often said over the years that there is nothing about me that I like that I did not get from my dad. I still believe that to this day. I suppose I may have gotten a few things from him I don’t like, and I certainly have other things about me that I do not like of which I cannot give him any of the blame, but the things about me worth liking are things I got from Greg Bahnsen, period. I have grown a lot in the 20 years he has been gone, and I am very comfortable thinking about and talking about his strengths, weaknesses, good habits, and bad habits. Greg Bahnsen was a human being, but boy did he hate people using that as an excuse for abject moral failure. Boy did he hate people using that as an excuse for mediocrity. Whatever it was that drove Greg Bahnsen, we all should want more of that. If our society could somehow get a decade of his views on antithesis stamped across its forehead, or instead a decade of his influence as a person, a pastor, and a Kuyperian, I will tell you that it is the latter that would have the greatest Kingdom impact. Of course, I’d be happy to take both.