The Apologetical Tradition Of The Opc: A Reconsideration -- By: Paul Kjoss Helseth

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 60:1 (Spring 1998)
Article: The Apologetical Tradition Of The Opc: A Reconsideration
Author: Paul Kjoss Helseth


The Apologetical Tradition Of The Opc:
A Reconsideration

Paul Kjoss Helseth*

* Paul Helseth recently completed his Ph.D. at Marguette University and lives and writes in Minnetonka, Minnesota. D. G. Hart and the late Greg Bahnsen provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

In an essay entitled “Machen, Van Til, and the Apologetical Tradition of the OPC,” the late apologist Dr. Greg Bahnsen addresses two questions which are of critical importance to the apologetical identity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). These questions, which flow from the perceived tension between Old Princeton and Westminster’s approaches to apologetics, can be stated as follows. Is the apologetical approach of J. Gresham Machen conceptually opposed to the presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til? And are there, therefore, two apologetical traditions in the OPC which are diametrically opposed to each other? While most interpreters either have or will conclude that Machen’s apologetic was conceptually at odds with the presuppositional approach of Van Til, Bahnsen insists that no such conclusion is warranted. Indeed, while he concedes that Machen and Van Til’s approaches are not identical, he nonetheless argues that there is a “harmony of perspective” between the two because Machen “moved away from the old Princeton conception of apologetics in a presuppositional direction.”1 Judging by the inclusion of Bahnsen’s essay in a volume commemorating the fiftieth year of the OPC, we may plausibly con clude that his views resonate with a fairly large and influential constituency.

Although there may be more in common between the apologetical approaches of Machen and Van Til than partisans on either side care to admit, I disagree with Bahnsen as to why compatibility is possible in his assessment of Machen’s relationship to Old Princeton in general and Benjamin B. Warfield in particular. While Bahnsen insists that compatibility is likely because Machen viewed apologetics similarly to Van Til (namely as a defensive task which is directed, “quite contrary to Warfield, mainly to believers,”)2 their methods are compatible precisely because Machen viewed apologetics similarly to

Warfield, namely as an offensive task which is directed primarily to unbelievers. While the following essay will draw no conclusions on whether there is a harmony of perspective running through the approaches of Machen and Van Til, it will establish—by examining Machen’s solution to the problem of the relationship between Christianity and culture—that apologetics...

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