Greg Bahnsen and Norm Shepherd – The Final Word

Last May and June I spent hundreds of hours combing through my late father’s files in an effort to clean up my grandmother’s storage facility at her assisted living facility. She passed on later that summer. I delightfully archived much of what I wanted to keep, and I wrote publicly of the overwhelming evidence that existed in the files supporting the self-evident claims that Bahnsen was a defender of Norm Shepherd. A few people (and I mean a “few” in the literal sense of the word), pleaded with me to hide what I found. One individual wrote me previously (in the context of the Bahnsen/Shepherd relationship) that “the only thing I shared with my dad was his last name.” Nasty emails flowed. Chat boards got excited. And to me, the whole thing was just as mysterious and lame as it has been since 2002 when all this got stirred up again. I proceeded to finalize a business deal that demanded all of my time for the next six months, and being a 14-18 hour per day worker as it is, I never re-visited this issue. In cleaning up my home office recently, and in sitting at the airport waiting for a flight, I decided to close out this chapter by releasing what I have. These people who have been so ugly in this matter are, to me, the “dogs and evil workers” Paul writes about in Philippians. I have no desire to engage this matter ever again. Nevertheless, I have been persuaded by some Godly men that a few noble reasons exist to air this out before archiving it forever. Herein lies the simple bag of evidence that Greg Bahnsen repudiated the notion that Norm Shepherd was a heretic, and in fact, embraced the core thesis of his work on justification, faith, and works (the heart of the controversy).

Exhibit 1 – Greg Bahnsen’s letter to Daniel Morse in 1984 pleading for Dan to consider joining his efforts in a church problem he was involved with (an incident I have no interest in getting into). In the course of the letter, Bahnsen says to Morse, “We did the right and just thing in defending Norm Shepherd from his unjust treatment at WTS and the OPC, and we now need to do the right thing again …”. Bahnsen may or may not have been right in his efforts to lure Rev. Morse into the church mess, but that is not my point. The letter specifically reminds Dan of their collective and righteous effort to defend Norm Shepherd.

Exhibit 2 – Greg Bahnsen’s clear and unambiguous recommendation of Norm Shepherd to a theological committee he was a part of in 1992. People can say a lot of things about my dad, but the notion that he was in the habit of recommending people who were heretics to theological committees he served on is idiotic.

Exhibit 3 – Greg Bahnsen’s letter to John Frame in 1987 demonstrating the similarities between the Norm Shepherd controversy and the Theonomy controversy. “Both cases involve substantial misrepresentation of one’s viewpoint by the critics, and both cases involve a failure of the critics to contend with the meat of the argument being made.” The letter additionally claims that “Shepherd should be proud of who the people are that attacked him, for they have shown their true colors in one instance after another.”

Exhibit 4 – Bahnsen’s attendance at two pastoral conferences run by Shepherd, hosted by Shepherd, and in which Shepherd was the lead speaker, in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He has 14 pages of handwritten notes, praising the material by Shepherd (material on the subject of covenant, justification, and particularly, the relationship between faith and works). Again, for a man who was so exhausted by travel, the notion that he went to these conferences with a deep distrust of Shepherd’s theological viewpoint, is hysterical.

Exhibit 5 – The fact that not one single person on the planet who knew dad well says ANYTHING other than the fact that he adored Shepherd, and was deeply defensive of him, and sympathetic to him. Included in this list of personal eye and ear witnesses is his own mother, Virginia Bahnsen, his own son, David Bahnsen, his very best friend, Roger Wagner, his best east coast friend, Steve Schlissel, and the man he handed the torch of Covenant Media Foundation to, Randy Booth. I have been told by two of the aforementioned “dogs and evil workers” that “these people all have an axe to grind”, but that is of course, unfounded, offensive, accusatory, and factually ludicrous. I couldn’t possibly have less of an axe to grind here. This entire controversy that these internet drools are so fascinated by is completely outside the scope of anything near and dear to my life. I have no interest in worthless theological controversies, and spend all of my time in life focused on far more worthwhile efforts. Virginia Bahnsen didn’t even know there was a re-surfaced controversy when she expressed her utter shock that people were denying Bahnsen’s respect for Shepherd’s teachings. And for those who want to accuse Wagner, Schlissel, and Booth of being liars, take it up with Greg Bahnsen. Pray that he wears gloves.

Exhibit 6 – Handwritten notes illustrating sympathy to Shepherd’s views of faith and works in our salvation (comparing such to a taco, and concluding that Shepherd is not out of bounds at all)

Exhibit 7 – This one is devastating. How can these professed defenders of Bahnsen possibly justify his total and complete lack of ever saying anything critical of Shepherd, ever, in any format whatsoever, if he was so down on his heretical views of justification? This is not just intellectually stupid, it is deeply offensive. If Bahnsen felt, as these men do, that Shepherd was guilty of dangerous heresy, and stirring up a damnable controversy, is there any doubt that he would have gone after Shepherd? Of course not. Instead, he praised him, urged others to defend him as well, and recommended him for theological committees. Case closed.

Exhibit 8 – The silence from the revisionists regarding Bahnsen’s public endorsement of Daniel Fuller’s Law-Gospel thesis is deafening. As my friend, Andrew Sandlin, has pointed out, “Fuller’s thesis breaks more dramatically with the (recent) traditional law-gospel/justification construction than Shepherd’s ever did. It is inconceivable that your Dad would publicly endorse Fuller’s thesis while condemning Shepherd’s similar thesis (i.e., as it relates to active, obedient faith).” There is no debate here.

Exhibit 9 – The quote in his Calvin’s Institutes study that was re-printed by Randy Booth in the festschrift we did for him several years back. Bahnsen, in agreement with Norman Shepherd, says:

“I think [this] is rather convoluted. Let me very briefly point out, some people will say James can’t mean the word justify in a forensic sense, because then he would contradict Paul. Paul says we are justified by faith, not works. James says we are justified by works. So if they both mean ‘justify’ in the forensic sense, there is a contradiction. Well, I don’t think so, because in Galatians 5:6 Paul teaches exactly what James does. Paul says we are justified by faith working by love. We are justified by working, active, living faith. I think that’s what James is teaching. They mean exactly the same thing. But nevertheless some people have insisted-and this has been a bone of controversy in my denomination even, because a professor at Westminster Seminary insisted James means this in the forensic sense. Now. people who don’t like that say, It is to be taken in the demonstrative sense. The problem is, the demonstrative sense of the word justify means “to show someone to be righteous,” and that doesn’t relieve the contradiction between James and Paul, because Paul in Romans 4 looks at Abraham as an example of how God justifies the ungodly. James is saying, Look at how God justifies someone demonstrated as godly. The contradiction is not relieved. And so what you really get–and this is crucial, this is a crucial point–modern interpreters who don’t like what I am suggesting and what Professor Shepherd is suggesting end up saying that to justify in James 2 really means “to demonstrate justification,” not to “demonstrate righteousness.” That is, they make the word to justify mean “to justify the fact that I’m justified.” And the word never means that. That’s utterly contrived. It means either “to declare righteous” or “to demonstrate righteous.” It does not mean “to justify that one’s justified.” Am I making myself clear? I’m suggesting that the reason Paul and James are not contrary to one another is because the only kind of faith that will justify us is working faith, and the only kind of justification ever presented in the Bible after the Fall is a justification by working faith, a faith that receives its merit from God and proceeds to work as a regenerated, new person.

I view it as the attempt of a madman to try and explain how Bahnsen is not expressing full-blown agreement with Shepherd here as it pertains to faith, works, and justification. Now, if Bahnsen has some agreement, but really has a deep-seeded concern somewhere else in Shepherd’s teaching, he would have given the qualification, right? He would have followed up with some warning about the other heresies this old fool promulgated. Sorry. Nothing. Zippo. A wholehearted endorsement, with no apology or qualification. Case closed.

Perhaps some of the “dogs and evil workers” would like to say about Bahnsen what Bob Godfrey said about Van Til several years ago, that essentially Van Til endorsed Shepherd because he was senile near the end of his days. This is an offensive lie, but I have no doubt that Godfrey wouldn’t know the first thing about how Van Til was doing the last ten years of his life. Do any want to claim that a 39-year old Bahnsen was senile when he said these things about Shepherd?

Speaking of Van Til, let’s go back in time at this gem:

“I think that when we begin with the idea of faith, we have to think first of all that the devils also believe and tremble. Now we have faith by which we need not to tremble because Christ on the cross said, “My God My God why hast Thou forsaken Me?” so that His people might not be forsaken. It is finished! It was finished, once for all. Now that is, I think, beautifully expressed in this word of our Lord [discussion of John 6:22ff].

When the multitudes wanted to make Him king because He had given them bread, and they thought it would be easy to have a handout, Jesus said, when they found the other side, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus said, “truly I say to you, ye seek Me not because ye see signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Now then comes the crucial point. “Do not work for food which perishes but for food which endures to eternal life which the Son of Man shall give to you, for of Him the father even God has been sealed.” They therefore said, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that ye may believe on Him Whom He hath sent.”

Here faith and works are identical. Not similar but identical. The work is faith; faith is work. We believe in Jesus Christ and in His salvation, that’s why we do not tremble. He died for us, in our place, and the Scotsmen would say “in our room and stead,” for that substitutionary atonement, on the basis of which we are forensically righteous with God and are now righteous in His sight and shall inherit the kingdom of heaven in which only the righteous shall dwell. And I’m going to ask John Frame if he will quote the Greek of this particular passage. [Frame works through it reading both the Greek and English.]

Van Til: I thank you. Well now, you see faith alone is not alone. Faith is not alone. Faith always has an object. The faith, your act of believing, is pointed definitely to God in Jesus Christ, and by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and conversion. It’s all one. It’s not a janus face proposition, but it is not possible to give exhaustive statements in human words, human concepts. And that’s why we have to be satisfied merely to do what the Scriptures and confessions of faith say that they [i.e. we] ought to do, and that then we are on the way, and I think that Norman Shepherd is certainly in the line of direct descent6 of [i.e. on] faith. Thank you. [Emphases noted are Van Til’s.]

I have no interest in ever addressing this issue again. I don’t care about it, and I feel the people who have issued attacks on Bahnsen and Shepherd publicly (and the private attacks on me), are the textbook definition of fools to be avoided (John Otis’s laughable book is a great example). I am earnestly desiring a faith and public Christianity that seeks to re-capture culture, not that hides on the internet in imbecilic conversations. These people have not the things of the Spirit on their mind, and their lives and interests are dominated by decidedly non-Christian things. I share these things today because, (a) I promised I would, and I want to keep my word, and (b) Shepherd’s defenders who have rightly claimed that Bahnsen was essentially with them deserve the support of this being public. It is wholly unnecessary, as their claims have always gone without credible objection, but to the extent that it is appreciated, I am glad to have it out there.

My exhortation to the “dogs and evil workers” is to get a life. But because I lack any hope that they will do so, my exhortation is that they follow the lead of another anti-Shepherd crusader, who has asked me not to share his name. This former PCA Pastor wrote me in 2003 and said, “You are certainly right that Bahnsen defended Shepherd during his lifetime. But if your father were alive today to see the fruit of what Shepherd has created, he would no doubt be appalled.” This is a far better stance for you to take. Admit history is not on your side, but just decide arbitrarily that a dead person would have changed his mind had he lived a little longer. No one can disprove you, and life will go on.

In the meantime, I still recommend you go with exhortation #1.

P.S. – The context of everything written herein is Shepherd’s views on faith/works/justification. The so-called debate on “active obedience”, totally separate from the controversy of the early 1980’s, is not relevant to what I am writing about at all. Shepherd had not articulated the active obedience issue prior to dad’s death.