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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « Augustine on the New Life in Christ | Main | New Multimedia on the Web for your Edification »

    Van Til: His Logic, Epistemology, and Apologetic

    The crystallization of presuppositionalism as an apologetical method is a historic occurrence which has its roots solidly within Reformed thought, and which in fact facilitates the extension of foundational Reformed principles to the defense of the faith. While it may be anachronistic to speak of Calvin, for example, as presuppositional, his writings do evince certain principles, such as the self-authenticating nature of divine revelation, which are foundational to the presuppositional outlook. To substantiate: “For the truth is vindicated in opposition to every doubt, when, unsupported by foreign aid, it has its sole sufficiency in itself” (from chapter 8 of the first book of the Institutes). The ready reception of the presuppositional ideal among many Reformed Christians has been, in my estimation, a largely positive affair. Therefore, having recently observed a new trend toward rejecting presuppositionalism as an apologetic method by discrediting its widely-accepted “father,” Cornelius Van Til, I determined that some thoughts on this particular strain of argument would be in order.

    It is vital, as we enter the discussion, to be clear that it is not one and the same thing to critique Van Tilianism and to critique presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism is one subset of Van Tilianism as a philosohical system; and it is so related to the rest of Van Til’s thought that it may well stand apart from any philosophical support from broader Van Tilian doctrine. Therefore, in order to make any progress in our discussion of the legitimacy of Van Til’s apologetic, we must make a sharp distinction between his apologetic per se, his logic, and his broader epistemology, particularly as it touches his concept of analogical knowledge; and further, we must allow that it is theoretically possible for the same person to reject Van Til's broader epistemology and logic and still embrace his apologetic. With these preliminary considerations in mind, I have a few observations to make, first, about Van Tilian logic; second, about Van Tilian espistemology, and third, about Van Tilian presuppositionalism.

    It is no question that Van Til’s relative scorn of logic as a legitimate framework for inter-relating independent bits of knowledge led him to some theological and philosophical excesses. The most notable of these is his ambiguity on the doctrine of the Trinity. His doctrine that God is one person and also three persons is not only an apparent contradiction; it is in fact an irreconcilable contradiction. Furthermore, it is a departure from the orthodox formulation of God as being one in essence, and three in person – a formulation which is both scripturally substantiable and logically acceptable. Another significant problem is the ease with which he adduces “apparent contradictions” throughout the gamut of biblical teaching; which are actually, as is his doctrine of the Trinity, absolute contradictions (in which tendency he seems to be influenced by Kant and Hegel, notwithstanding his arguments against their dialectic). That much of the current reaction against Van Til is no doubt warranted. However, as the burden of this article involves the support of an apologetical method, I will leave the topic with only a reminder that it is quite possible to adduce inconsistencies in Van Til’s logic while affirming the basic premises of his apologetic.

    A second and related facet of Van Til’s teaching that has often been called into question is his concept of “analogical knowledge” which has a substantial place in his epistemology as a whole. This concept may or may not be a legitimate assessment of reality; but in any case, I think that it has been somewhat exaggerated and misunderstood. For example, Robert Reymond (following Gordon Clark), in attempting to illustrate the absurdity of analogical knowledge, made the assessment that, if none of our knowledge apprehends actual reality in the way that God knows actual reality, but is merely analogical of that reality, then when we read the statement that Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon, for all we know, the actual reality (God's knowledge) to which that statement is analogous, might well be that Nebuchadnezzar was a satrap of Persia. The problem with this assessment is, first, that there is no way to demonstrate that the one reality is truly analogical of the other. On the contrary, given the basic legitimacy of the system, it is entirely possible to prove that God’s knowledge is in actuality analogical to what we understand by Nebuchadnezzar’s being King of Babylon; because God himself framed the symbolical/analogical essence of human language as well as the corresponding and uniform human apprehension which it awakens. In other words, if the Possessor of absolute knowledge is also the Framer of a symbolic representation of that absolute knowledge, he is entirely capable of making the analogical an accurate reflection of the absolute. A second problem is that it is absurd to suppose that being a satrap constitutes a more fundamental level of reality than being a King (as would have to be the case if Reymond's example of Van Tllian thought would hold true). Basically, I think Reymond is entirely missing the point here. An illustration which would do more justice to the intent of Van Til's teaching would be a mirror. When one sees a person reflected in the mirror, he is not seeing the actual person. He is beholding an entirely different level of reality. But because a mirror is truly analogical of that more fundamental level of reality, he is able to perceive things on that secondary level which could never be properly said of any other person or thing than that which he is beholding. Although we might not understand the most fundamental essence of what it means to be King of Babylon, yet what we may understand about it is a true reflection of the essential knowledge itself, and hence could not be exchanged with any other analogical description of reality. Again, this point is not the burden of the article, so I will proceed without casting my vote for or against Van Til’s analogical knowledge.

    It is an unfortunate circumstance that some persons have attempted to argue against Van Til’s presuppositionalism without possessing a thoroughly Van Tilian conception of what constitutes presuppositionalism. Van Til's most fundamental point was that, before the arguments (for anything) are weighed, we must have a set of criteria by which to weigh them. This set of criteria, in order legitimately to be able to pass a meaningful judgment on its subject, must be more fundamentally true than its subject. What is the most fundamentally true set of criteria? The pagan philosophers would hold that either empirical data or logical axioms are the most foundational set of criteria with which to pass judgment on propositions. All propositions are of lesser authority than these criteria, and so are true and real only as the criteria assert that they are true and real. Now, if the Christian accepts this presupposition, he is, from the beginning, acknowledging that human sensibility and reason can pass judgment on God; that God is a lesser reality than logical systems, and that his Word is only true according as it is given credence by a humanistic analysis. The burden of Van Til's apologetic, therefore, is not about "proving" God, the bible, or any other thing (which would make God, etc., subject to humanistic substantiation); but rather, about showing that the very hermeneutic of empiricism or rationalism is self-destructive and untenable; and further, about demonstrating that the only presupposition which does not self-destruct is the proposition that God is, and that he reveals himself. This leads to an understanding that the scriptures contain a self-authenticating stamp of divinity, by virtue of the fact that it is through them that the Spirit speaks to mankind. The basic "proof" that the Bible is God's word is that, it is only when the Bible is proclaimed that God reveals himself savingly to mankind. Hence, for reasons of evangelism, the proclamation of the Word must be everything, and it must be the Word as self-authenticating, not the Word as subjected to tests of (flawed) humanistic epistemological foundations. Regardless of how we react to any other facet of Van Til’s teaching, I think we would do well to think long and deeply on this profound observation. Instead of using logic and evidence as self-authenticating systems capable of leading to God, we must acknowledge the immediacy of divine self-revelation; and ultimately, the divine origin even of the logical and evidential systems themselves. In other words, for the Christian to extend knowledge at all, he must first receive the initial truth that God is the source of all knowledge, and that God is the source of every method whereby knowledge may be attained; that is, God is the ultimate source, not only of truth, but also of logic and perception, or the systems by which all truths are recognized and interrelated. When we approach the acquisition of knowledge from this foundation, knowledge can be arrived at certainly: we know that pure reason is reliable, because it derives from the orderly and immutable character of God; we know that empirical evidence is authentic because it has its origin in the creative energy of God. Our only possibility for error lies in our distortion of true logic and sensuous perception. But this confidence can only come by the presupposition that God is, and that he has spoken to us through his Word, which we have as the infallible, written scriptures. In summary, God is not authentic because reason supports his existence, but reason is authentic because it comes from God. God cannot be proved true, because he fundamentally is true.

    Let me make one final observation regarding those biblical passages which assert that God may be apprehended through creation.The basic presupposition of Van Tilianism is that there is a God who reveals himself. In fact, he reveals himself to all men to the extent that they are justifiably damned for rejecting that which can be known about him through creation. The passages of scripture that teach that God can be seen in his creation are not properly a threat to presuppositionalism, because they assume an absolutely existing, transcendent God, that is condescending to reveal himself. There is no hint of making nature the fundamental reality which, by passing judgment on a proposition, is able to give odds to God's existence -- rather, it is one means through which the fundamentally real God displays himself. But in order to be known savingly, he must be displayed through the Bible, and not nature alone. On this note, see the common example of evangelists such as Paul (e.g. Acts 17, Mars Hill); in no case is their first point to establish the existence of God; but rather, assuming that there is a God who made everything and who reveals himself to some degree to all men (even pagan poets), they customarily proceed, through God's inspired revelation, to teach truths about who this self-revealing God is.

    To conclude: no matter what we may make of certain other aspects of Van Til’s thought, let us give serious reflection to his basic presuppositional assertion, namely, “Of course Reformed believers do not seek to prove the existence of their God. To seek to prove or to disprove the existence of this God would be to seek to deny him.... A God whose existence is proved is not the God of Scripture.” I suspect there may be much of God-exalting truth in this foundational assessment.

    Posted by Nathan on June 28, 2006 01:38 PM

    Comments

    Thank you so much Mr. Pitchford, and thank you for posting the response to my musings (on this subject) on my blog. I am actively researching presuppositional apologetics. Your post clears up several things that I was confused about.

    I appreciate the time that you put into this. Thanks!

    God be with you,

    Albert Shepherd
    The Aspiring Theologian

    Excellent article on presuppositional apologetics. I definitley agree that when a person proves that the Bible is right or God exists, he becomes the absolute and the standard, which is unacceptable. For the same reason, relational apologetics is wrong. God is revealed from His very nature; the Bible is Truth because it says so.

    Soli Deo Gloria

    thank you so much for all the study necessary to make this posting. I checked a book out by VanTil once and could not follow it at all. I was introduced to presuppositionalism by Bahnsen, him I did understand. Now that I read this I might try again.

    Well balanced treatment of Van Til. Thank you. Most Van Tilians often gloss over the problem areas that you mention. The only issue I have is that if you survey all of Van Til's writings, it is hard to come away thinking he is truly a presuppositionalist. Even one of his most ardent defenders, John Frame, in his book, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, admits that he is not a true presuppositionalist. Now some may object to this claim but I think if you look at how Van Til viewed natural theology in some of his writings, his approval of NT directly contradicts his "presuppositionalism." Van Til has written:

    "God's revelation is everywhere, and everywhere perspicuous. Hence the theistic proofs are absolutely valid. They are but the restatement of the revelation of God."

    "Men ought to reason analogically from nature to nature’s God. Men ought, therefore, to use the cosmological argument analogically in order thus to conclude that God is the creator of this universe..."

    "Accordingly I do not reject 'the theistic proofs' but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture. That is to say, if the theistic proof is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid, whatever the attitude of those to whom it comes may be."

    He never did show us the valid formualtion of these proofs, nor has anyone else. (For the record, I do not believe they exist).

    John Frame wrote: "Van Til is not simply opposed to the theistic proofs as students often imagine. On the contrary, he gives them strong endorsement. But he insists that they be formulated in a distinctively Christian way, rejecting any 'proof' based on a non-Christian epistemology."

    Frame also says that, "Cornelius Van Til, in my view, should not be grouped with Gordon Clark as a 'presuppositionalist' as is often done. Van Til, rather, presents us with a complete epistemology involving motifs from all three tendencies [rationalism, empiricism, and subjectivism] and more."

    The only true presuppositional postion is one that starts with the axiom of scripture: The Bible alone is the word of God. Once one asserts that the theisitic proofs are objectively valid, they can no longer be considered a presuppositionalist, IMO.

    Sorry for the length of the comment; hopefully it helps to add some clarity. I wish Van Til was clearer in his writings so we could say for certain which side of the apologetic fence he was really on.

    Darrin,

    Thanks for the clarifications. I think you have a point: in some places, Van Til speaks as a thorough-going presuppositionalist, but in some places he speaks in a way that seems contradictory to his stark presuppositional diatribes elsewhere. I don't know if the apparent contradiction arises from my struggle to follow his train of thought in every case, or whether it is in fact an actual contradiction in his writings. I suspect the latter, but I could be wrong.

    Lady Raven,

    If you do decide to take up Van Til again, I would recommend The Defense of the Faith over his other apologetical writings. It's a little heavy at first, but if nothing else, read chapter ten, "The Defense of Christianity" (pp. 209-259 in the 1967 P&R edition). He gets very practical in that chapter, formulating dialogues between Mr. Black (unbeliever), Mr. White (Reformed/Presuppositional), and Mr. Grey (Arminian/Evidentialist), which I think are quite helpful.

    Nathan,

    I appreciate your balanced and thoughtful article. I found it very interesting and helpful.

    I do think, however, that you dismiss Reymond's (i.e. Clark's) objections to Van Til's analogous knowledge too facilely.

    The problem is that Van Til argued that all knowledge of God is analogical, and that our knowledge is "at no point identical with the content of God’s mind." (emphasis mine.) He believed that to claim otherwise was to destroy the creator/creature distinction. It was this view that led to his attack on Gordon Clark's ordination

    Clark's point was that if God knows everything truly, and our knowledge intersects with God's (in other words, if we know something to some degree the way God knows it) at no point, then we cannot have any true knowledge. Clark argued that in order to know anything truly, there has to be some point of univocality between God's knowledge and ours.

    I think Reymond's examples demonstrate this. If anything, the flaw in his Nebuchadnezzar’s example is that it doesn't go far enough. If Van Til is right about there being no univocality between our knowledge and God's, the scriptural statement on Nebuchadnezzar’s kingship could just as easily mean "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" to God. If we have no referent to the real, univocal meaning, how can we judge what any analogy is ultimately referring to? Reymond's point, I believe, is that all true knowledge and language must have a univocal element with God's knowledge, since God knows all truth comprehensively.

    Even your mirror analogy demonstrates it. In what sense is the mirror "truly analogical of that more fundamental level of reality"? (Incidentally, saying that it's "an entirely different level of reality" is pretty vague; I don't know what that means. There is reality and there is unreality, but I don't know how to judge "levels" of reality, or even what those would be.) If we take it that the face is "reality" and the mirror image is "analogy," we must also understand that the accuracy of the "analogy" depends entirely on a univocal correspondence between the face and the image. If enough things happen to the mirror, the analogy is lost. Why? Because if you have enough of those, you lose the univocal element--i.e. the accurate reflection of the face. If the mirror is cracked and smudged beyond recognition, you might still have an analogy of something, perhaps, but not of the face (i.e. the reality), because the univocal element has been lost.

    Every analogy depends entirely on the univocal element between it and the object of the analogy to be meaningful. Van Til severed that univocality. Fortunately, he didn't follow that to it's logical conclusion (which would be neo-orthodoxy), but others have, to one degree or another.

    There are plenty of things I disagree with Clark on as well. But I am persuaded by his argument against Van Til at this point. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate your article.

    John R.,

    Thanks for the observations. Let me say, first, that my point is not to argue for Van Til's concept of analogical knowledge; I merely wanted to demonstrate that certain arguments against it miss the point of what he was arguing for, and are therefore illegitimate. To be completely honest, I am highly skeptical of analogical knowledge, not because I have been convinced against it by Reymond or Clark, but because I have not been convinced for it by Van Til. I don't find any real substantiation besides speculative philosophy in any of Van Til's writings. But I still think my critique of Reymond's argument, as illustrated by the Nebuchadnezzar example, remains valid. The missing factor, one powerful enough to obliterate the idea that without univocal knowledge Nebuchadnezzar's kingship might mean to God the equivalent of what "twinkle, twinkle, little star" means to us, is that the analogical proceeds from the creativity of the One who possesses all absolute knowledge. God is capable of using analogy to instill in our minds an understanding with a one-to-one correspondence to his absolute reality, to the extent that this analogy could signifiy no other absolute reality. Let me illustrate by assuming the truth of Van Til's argument (although, in actuality, I would not assume such without further substantiation). Say there is an apple which is "real," and there is a possibility of knowing that apple "really" through empirical apprehension. Now say that there is a photographer who is capable of representing that apple in an empirically-apprehensible form which is not, however, the real apple itself. The photographer is able to produce the photograph without smudges or any such thing. Now, if a person were able to examine this photograph, he would be able to know things about the apple which it is impossible to know about any other thing. But he would only know through analogy. He would not know by apprehending the thing-in-itself. In a world full of photographs, it seems patently reasonable to assume this circumstance, even given the finite power of the photographer. Now, suppose with Van Til that there is a knowledge which is ultimately real because it is that which God knows. And suppose that God, with his infinite power, wants his creatures to understand that knowledge, but only through analogically derived means. Could he not do so in a way in which every bit of knowledge has an anological correspondent which can properly be illustrative of God's true knowledge? Is he not capable of analogizing by means of a "mirror" (or empirically-perceptible relationship of any sort) which is not cracked, fuzzy, or distorted? We are so designed that, when we hear the symbolic utterance, "apple," we are able through this means to arrive at an intellectual understanding of a true "apple" which is more substantial than the symbolic word used to signify it. The only step that is necessary for Van Til's assessment is to say that, instead of the word "apple" being a secondary symbol of the essence "apple," which is primary knowledge; there is a possibility that the word "apple" is a tertiary symbol of the essence "apple," which is itself a secondary symbol of God's knowledge of the "apple" ideal. The whole idea is very Platonic, and finds little or no warrant from scripture. In fact, scripture seems to indicate that we can truly know God, and not just things about him, which is a consideration pitted against Van Til's analogical knowledge. But to say that it is scripturally likely, or even necessary, to reject this teaching is a different thing altogether from saying that the very idea destroys any possibility of certainty in knowledge, simply because it relegates true human knowledge to the second-level world of the analogical. If God can use the tertiary level of human language to enable a man of understanding to arrive at a true, but differently-leveled understanding of the thing signified, then he can also cause the (secondary) human understanding of anything signified to represent an absolutely correspondent and yet levelly-different reality.

    I differ from Van Til because I believe that humans were created to know God -- that this knowledge is in fact eternal life (see John 17). And therefore, to do justice to human purpose, we must be able to know God in a real and fundamental (but not exhaustive) way. But I don't agree that Van Til's (Platonic) conception of dual-level knowledge is patently absurd.

    Perhaps there is little profit to be had from engaging in philosophical subtleties and sophistries. In the final analysis, I suppose I would have to reject Van Tilian analogical knowledge. But the rejection arises from a biblical-theological understanding of the creation and purpose of man, and not in a logical critique of the abstract potentiality of the system he constructed.

    Then again, I could be splitting hairs unnecessarily. I suppose it is sufficient that I do find cause for doubting Van Til on this point.

    Revelation comes in degrees. Sometimes we see through a glass darkly. We grow in grace and knowledge. The day will come when the justified saints will see face to face and will know even as we are known. Until that day, we must contend with a growing knowledge and look forward to a completed one.

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    Thanks for your very insightful analysis. But at the risk of sounding like the unthinking, uncritical sheepish vantilian (I do not consider myself van tilian but Christian) I must however state the Truth. For God's judgement supersedes all other considerations.
    People largely misunderstood most of what Van Til said. We strugle with it because it to a large extent indicts all of us and the Adamic ego(the old man) in us all, Van Til and myself inclusive.What Van Til said about the Trinity is what the scripture says clearly. It is not illogical it is a Logic beyond man. That, man finds hard to accept.The natural man would always be in enemity with this God. God whose ways are beyond searching out.He Reveals. We dont autonomously search out. And Moses tells that the revealed is for us, and the yet unrevealed for him alone. Scripture tells us there is one God. And reveals this God to us as a person.HE. Yet scripture tells us Jesus is fully, completely, not in part, but the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily, just as scripture calls the Father and Holy Spirit fully God. While these three are revealed as eternally distinct persons. Now created human logic(for man and everything in him is creature not the creator) can not understand this without faith. Now the natural man would rather worship his logic(the creature) than bow in faith and awe before the Creator. This itself is indeed contrary to true logic. But this happens within even our own minds, thats why Paul would talk of bringing every thought captive to Christ. Hebrew says its by faith we understand, not the other way.True logic points beyond itself as in the revelation of God of Himself. Van Til as Adam's descendant was (or would have been)wrong on many things, but lets not go against truth in a bid to unnecesarily point out this obvious fact. Where he follows Christ Please follow him.

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