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Presumptuous Presuppositions

The Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, by John M. Frame

Whether one entirely agrees with him or not, no Christian interested in apologetics–the reasoned defense of the Faith–can afford to be uninterested in Cornelius Van Til, the late professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. According to John Frame, Van Til “is perhaps the most important thinker since Calvin.” Yet Frame demonstrates throughout his book that he is willing to be quite critical of his former professor. His praise is not due to an unquestioning allegiance, but to years of reflection as a theologian, philosopher, and apologist.

Why is Van Til so important? Building on the thought of Reformed theologians in America (Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield) and Holland (Abraham Kuyper,Herman Bavinck), Van Til developed an approach to apologetics based on two foundational points: that all people are obligated to acknowledge God in all their thinking and that nonchristians unremittingly resist this obligation. These two points are perhaps most obviously set forth in Romans 1:18-32,where the Apostle Paul declares that God is clearly revealed in creation but that people suppress that revelation and worship creatures rather than the creator. Despite the commonplace misconception that Van Til did not believe in “general revelation”–that God is revealed even to nonchristians in nature and history–Frame points out that Van Til strongly affirmed that God is clearly revealed to all people no matter what they claimed to the contrary. The problem is that all people practice self-deception. In looking at the world and themselves, nonchristians presuppose that the true God does not exist.

Van Til developed a radical critique of nonchristian thought (see below)which he claimed provided an “absolutely certain proof” for God’s existence–not the existence a god or “supreme being” of some sort, but the Triune God of Scripture. Negatively, this proof was an indirect argument that said unless the God of the Bible exists, then knowledge is impossible. Since no argument of any kind could be made if knowledge were not possible, Christianity is left as not merely the best option, but the only intelligible option. Positively, this proof spelled out how the existence of a personal God, the Trinity, providence, the distinction between creator and creature, humankind’s creation in the image of God, and God’s revelation of Himself make human knowledge possible. To account for one’s knowledge, one must acknowledge Christian Theism. Instead of an idolatrous presupposition, or ultimate commitment with which one interprets everything else, Van Til argued that one ought to presuppose that God exists and has revealed Himself in Christ through Scripture. Any other presupposition leads to futility.

Thus, Van Til recommended that apologists “meet our enemy on their own ground” by assuming their position “for the sake of argument” and reduce it to absurdity, showing that their reasoning “leads to self-contradiction, not only from a theistic point of view, but from a nontheistic point of view as well.” Van Til was rather good at demonstrating the incoherence in secular thought (even his opponents admit this) because of his thorough knowledge of philosophy.

Van Til’s radical critique analyzed the shifts in Western thought as a dialectic between rationalism and irrationality. Frame discusses how this dialectic roughly corresponds to the tension between the “forms” and “matter” in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, between the “phenomenal” realm and the”noumenal” in the thought of Kant, and the conflicts between the empiricists and the rationalists before Kant, and the idealists and logical positivists after Kant–to condense his thinking almost to the point of caricature. Nonchristian thought is caught in irresolvable conflicts because they do not believe in the Christian God. Van Til explained Eve’s decision in the gardenof Eden as involving the same sort of rationalism-irrationality dialectic. On the one hand, to disobey God’s command Adam and Eve had to assume that God was incapable of making predictions about the future just as they were–that the universe is “open” so that anything can happen regardless of what God has said. On the other hand, they had to assume that they would not be cursed if they ate from the tree–that they could somehow know how the universe must act in the future.

To give an extremely simplistic example (mine, not Frame’s) of how this might boil down in an apologetic debate. It would not be all that uncommon to argue with an evolutionary materialist who claims that belief in God is illogical. While there are many forms of argument one may use, eventually one should mention that the ultimate issue is that the nonchristian is interpreting reality according to his (idolatrous) presupposition. This could involve simply his desire to sleep around without feeling guilty and a willingness to interpret reality accordingly, but it is probably best to keep the discussion as polite as possible and refer to the way he distinguishes what is true from false–say, some mixture of logic and experience. But an evolution teaches that one’s mind is a product of chance, of a coincidence of impersonal forces. So, on what basis, can he assert that the “laws” of logic his mind uses are reliable guides to truth? Logic is necessary, but only a Christian can explain why. An evolutionary materialist’s reliance on logic is, in a sense, irrational.

Van Til’s critique of nonchristian thought and his apologetic method made him also quite critical of other apologists. Van Til argued that the traditional proofs for God undermine the Christian method because they only show that God’s existence is probable. Likewise, the historical evidence for Christianity, if presented in the traditional manner, proves only that Jesus might have risen from the dead. Not only is this short of the Gospel, but it doesn’t do justice to Paul’s assertion in Romans 1:18ff that all people know God. While Van Til said that the proofs could be presented in a better manner, and that there is nothing wrong with presenting historical evidence,sooner or later one must deal with the unbeliever’s presupposition by which he interprets logic and history.

As professor of Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California(Escondido), John Frame presents an in-depth breakdown of Van Til’s thought. This is extraordinarily helpful to both the beginner and one who has slogged through many of Van Til’s books. As Frame says Van Til:

speaks of proving Christian Theism “as a unit.” In teaching apologetics, he throws his whole system at the reader all at once, so to speak, rather than bit by bit. And if the reader doesn’t grasp it all, well, Van Til throws it all at him a second time. Thus the reader gets the impression that he cannot pick and choose; it is either all or nothing; Van Til must be thoroughly embraced or totally opposed.

Thus, not only did Van Til’s method tend to make for bad communication, it also polarized the debate over apologetic methodology. Anyone who didn’t “thoroughly embrace” him, found it easy to “totally oppose” Van Til. Frame himself discusses his run-ins with “movement Van Tilians,” who get extremely upset over mere departures from Van Til’s language, let alone criticisms of his ideas.

And Frame does criticize some of Van Til’s ideas. Having broken down Van Til’s thought he disagrees with some, and wishes other parts had been nuanced more carefully. He is especially helpful in defending apologist’s whom Van Til has clashed with, such as Edward J. Carnell, Gordon Clark, and Francis Schaeffer.Yet Frame maintains that the good in Van Til’s thought is worth picking from the dross. Indeed, his work seems to be a plea for fellow laborers in the field. Hopefully, Frame’s irenic tone and his mastery of such fascinating and challenging material will win him some partners in analysis and friendly critics.

He makes it clear he would appreciate both.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

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