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: â€œFor the truth is vindicated in opposition to every doubt, when, unsupported by foreign aid, it has its sole sufficiency in itselfâ€ (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 â€œfather,â€ 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 Tilâ€™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 Tilâ€™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 Tilâ€™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 â€“ a formulation which is both scripturally substantiable and logically acceptable. Another significant problem is the ease with which he adduces â€œapparent contradictionsâ€ 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 Tilâ€™s logic while affirming the basic premises of his apologetic.
A second and related facet of Van Tilâ€™s teaching that has often been called into question is his concept of â€œanalogical knowledgeâ€ 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 Godâ€™s knowledge is in actuality analogical to what we understand by Nebuchadnezzarâ€™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 Tilâ€™s analogical knowledge.
It is an unfortunate circumstance that some persons have attempted to argue against Van Tilâ€™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 Tilâ€™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 Tilâ€™s thought, let us give serious reflection to his basic presuppositional assertion, namely, â€œOf 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.â€ I suspect there may be much of God-exalting truth in this foundational assessment.