Saturday, October 18, 2008

Historical Apologist: Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til (1896-1987) was a Reformed theologian, born in the Netherlands and educated at Calvin College and Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, who had a profound influence on many students at Westminster Seminary. Van Til defended a presuppositionalism denying that the issue between Christianity and its rivals can be decided by an appeal to agreed-upon facts. Instead he argued that every belief system is grounded in an ultimate presupposition, Christianity being grounded in the self-attesting revelation of the triune God. Non-Christian views must be critiqued by pointing out the internal contradictions that arise from their inadequate presuppositions.1

1. C.Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 120.


25 Comments

  1. Ryan Hemelaar October 21, 2008

    I disagree with Van Til’s Presuppositionalism. For even if you critique non-Christian worldviews, that does not provide a positive case for Chrisitianity. It would only do so if he has refuted every single other world view and shown why they are false.

  2. Brian October 21, 2008

    I can sympathize with your view. I am not a Van Til endorser by any means. However, I do find his writings helpful; I just don’t think the method is practical. There are many things to learn from him however. My suggestion to apologists is to be as well-read in all of the notable apologists as possible in order to gain insights from as many angles as possible.

    You might want to check out the debate between Bahnsen and Stein. Bahnsen was a real Van Til disciple — and you can see his method played out in that particular debate.

  3. Ryan Hemelaar October 21, 2008

    Yeah, I’ve been hearing all about Van Til’s apologetical method through the lecture series on Christian Apologetics by John Frame from the Reformed Theological Seminary.

    I’ve also heard that debate between Bahnsen and Stein, but I do not see how a presuppositional apologist can say that the transcendental argument proves the Christian God to absolute certainty. All I think it proves, if successful, is a transcendent cause for the laws of logic. Moreover, I don’t think it even proves that to a level of absolute certainty.

  4. Glenn October 21, 2008

    Ryan,

    I think that you are correct to a good extend on the transcendental argument being used as absolute in its refutation of everything else. Some presuppositional apologists (PA) do take things way too far.

    But the key to my embrace of PA revolves around the practical use of it with others. It’s very important for us, in the modern context, to realize that God doesn’t see anyone on any kind of neutral ground. No one is neutral and to that extent we must engage in PA if we are to ever help someone see the foundation of where they have gone wrong.

    Take Bart Ehrman… he expects us to embrace some type of objective historical method that will help us find the truth out regarding what is historical in the Bible and what is not… well, the only problem is the fact that he’s assuming/presupposing an atheistic view of history. Now, unless we point it out and make him account for his views, no one will gain any ground against him, IMO, if they submit their own beliefs to his atheistic historical method.

    Licona’s debate with Ehrman goes to show that you really, really need to address PA when discussing with those who presuppose an atheist’s view of history.

    The Triune God is the owner of history and if we fail to recognize that, we can go off in any direction we want.

  5. Ryan Hemelaar October 22, 2008

    “Now, unless we point it out and make him account for his views, no one will gain any ground against him”

    I don’t see that as presuppositional apologetics, for even R.C. Sproul would agree that if someone’s epistemology is wrong, you must first deal with that. That does not go against the classical apologetical method.

    What makes Van Til’s view unique is that he would say you cannot use any probability arguments for God (except that the transcendental argument is still a probability argument). However, John Frame disagrees with him on that point. And meanwhile, Gordon Clark says that you cannot use any arguments for God to be really presuppositional, so he says that Van Til, Bahnsen, etc are not presuppositionalists because they still try to prove God (using trancendental argument, etc).

  6. Glenn October 22, 2008

    Ryan, the points about Van Til and other apologists are well taken. I would also say that Sproul, on that point, is acting presuppositionally. But feel free to disagree. 🙂

    My point still follows… there is no neutral ground. That is the fundamental claim of presuppositional apologetics. There are no classical apologetic arguments that can be used from reason to prove that the Triune God exists and that the Bible is therefore His revelation to man. It must be accepted as such and can only be accepted as such by a work of the Holy Spirit.

    This is where I believe it is useful to “prime” the pump with other forms of apologetic arguments… but those other methods do not ultimately deal with the boogy man in the closet. The boogy man in the closet needs to be taken out and set on fire by the relevation of God in Jesus Christ proclaimed to the non-believer through the announcement of the Gospel.

    Frame’s short article is a good summary of the presuppositional approach and history in the IPV dictionary. It’s free on his site if you haven’t already read it:

    Presuppositional Apologetics

    IMO, Frame’s conclusions about PA are solid:

    “Despite these difficulties, the presuppositional approach has these advantages: (1) It takes account of what Scripture says about our obligation to presuppose God’s revelation in all our thinking and about the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth. (2) It understands what according to Scripture must be the goal of apologetics: to convince people that God’s revelation is not only true, but the very criterion of truth, the most fundamental certainty, the basis for all intelligible thought and meaningful living.”

  7. Brian October 22, 2008

    Glenn,
    Perhaps it would be helpful if you could supply some scriptural examples of PA being used by Paul or Peter, etc.

  8. Glenn October 26, 2008

    Sorry for the delayed response. I’ve been out of town until today. I took my Professional Engineers licensure exam. We will see how I did in about 12 weeks! =)

    So, Brian, you asked for some Scripture… First, I would point out that the Bible itself presupposes God in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God…”

    This illustrates the Bible’s own presupposition that God is and that we all know He is. Which leads me to Paul in Romans 1… “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

    This I take to be Paul’s explanation to the church at Rome about how we are to understand the position of non-believers. He’s not engaging with non-Christians here, but he is nonetheless expounding upon the knowledge of God that all people have and by nature suppress.

    Obviously, the epistles do not have a non-Christian audience, so the only place we can look for Peter and Paul engaging in PA with non-believers is in the Acts of the Apostles. One example is the Areopagus event in Acts 17. Paul says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul did not seek to prove the existence of the one, true God. Instead, he used a very subtle thing in their culture to point out what they were unclear/ignorant about in terms of the details of who God really is and what he has done in the world. That is where Paul goes on in his argument through the rest of that chapter.

    I guess my main point is this… that Paul assumes in his evangelization a certain disposition of those he meets (in the gentile world)… (1) They are not neutral, (2) they have a certain degree of knowledge about God, (3) the Gospel is true and it needs to be proclaimed as such, and (4) clever arguments from philosophy are not foundational since God used the foolish things to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:17-31)

    Now, please don’t hear me saying that this is the only way to go without using anything else. I’m not saying that. I’m just pointing out what I see as the Bible’s own use or encouragement towards presuppositional dialogue and apologetics.

  9. Ryan Hemelaar October 27, 2008

    “This illustrates the Bible’s own presupposition that God is and that we all know He is.”

    However, the Bible is not an apologetical work for unbelievers, it is a theological work for believers. Therefore, there would no point in the Bible proving God, since the intended audience are those who already affirm His existence.

    “Paul did not seek to prove the existence of the one, true God.”

    Of course not, because they already believed that there is a God. So Paul used the things that they already believed and went on from there. He firstly proved that the gods they worship do not exist because they are logically inconsistent. He used a quote from one of their poets to show this point.

    Just like if I meet a polytheist today, I would not show to that person that there is a God, because they already believe that. I just show why their gods are logically inconsistent and provide a positive case for the Christian God.

    So you cannot use Acts 17 as a proof text that we shouldn’t prove the existence of God.

    I would agree that not everyone is neutral. That is why we must point out their irrationality in that area if they do not accept the conclusion to our arguments without successfully refuting them. But it doesn’t mean we should cease to argue and provide a positive case for Christianity simply because people have their own presuppositions. Just like we shouldn’t stop witnessing to people even though we cannot convert anyone, as conversion is all a work of God. But in conversion, we can be a means to God’s end. The same thing for apologetics (for believing in God is the first step on the road to conversion).

    The way that Van Til and Gordon Clark (especially) have drawn from the fact that people are not neutral the conclusion that we should not provide a positive case for Christianity is simply unfounded. God is sovereign, and commands us to give a reason for the hope that we have. And covered under that, if someone asks why we believe in God, we should be ready to give a positive case. I agree their minds have been affected by the consequences of sin (and so thus have their own presuppositions), but God can use our arguments for His purpose of conversion (and make their minds work properly). For someone cannot be a Christian and not even believe that God exists. So once we have proven God, it gives us a great opportunity to preach the good news of the gospel and what they must do to be saved (which God then can use to convert that person).

  10. Mike W. October 29, 2008

    You guys have a lot of opinions about what Van Til’s transcendental argument can and cannot do, but can any one of you state what his argument is? Then we could evaluate what it can do.

  11. Ryan Hemelaar October 30, 2008

    Here is the transcendental argument outlined.

    I think it only proves, if successful, the existence of a transcendent cause of logic.

  12. Glenn October 30, 2008

    Sorry, but this week has been too busy for me to respond in full yet. But in answer to the previous question. I would look at the section from the Frame article I quoted above if you want a summary of what it meant to Van Til and what some questions are that it raises.

    Here is one important point…

    “Van Til and those who closely follow him hold that apologetic argument must be transcendental. He also calls it “reasoning by presupposition” (Van Til, Defense, p. 99). A transcendental argument tries to show the conditions that make anything what it is, particularly the conditions or presuppositions necessary for rational thought. This understanding of apologetics underscores Van Til’s conviction that the Christian God is not merely another fact to be discovered alongside the ones we already know, but is the fact from whom all other facts derive their meaning and intelligibility.”

    Hope that helps answer what the argument actually entails.

  13. Mike W. October 31, 2008

    Glen, Frame’s quote accurately defines the goal of the argument, which is important, but it’s not the argument itself.

    Ryan, Van Til would agree with much of what is said in the argument that you linked to, but that’s not his specific argument. Van Til would point out that not any absolute will do. Parmenides and Plato argued for an absolute that excluded change and diversity, and thereby undermined the possibility of rationality.

    The specific kind of absolute that Van Til argued for is a concrete universal – an absolute that is the source of the diversity as well as the unity of the world. Here is my summary of his argument:

    http://www.christianciv.com/ChristCivEssay.htm#VTAGsummary

    Van Til’s argument covers all the possibilities for the issue of the ultimacy of the one and the many: You either affirm an eternal concrete universal or deny it. Van Til argues that various aspects of Christian theology can be deduced from God as a concrete universal, such as the fall of man from an original perfection, the need for redemptive revelation, etc. (see Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 80). But of course not everything in the Bible can be deduced from the “master concept.” So *in that sense*, TAG is not universal. It doesn’t require that Abraham came from Ur rather than some other place, for example. It’s important to note the sense in which TAG does prove the impossibility of the contrary and the sense in which it does not.

  14. Glenn November 2, 2008

    FYI… These audios below are something that you should all listen to for a good discussion of Van Til and his context and what he was trying to do. To the extent that Van Til was trying to apply the Reformed system of theology to apologetics, I completely agree… given that I’m Reformed in my theology to a very large extent.

    But it is always interesting to see Sproul talk about apologetics and then turn around and affirm Reformed Theology. On that count, Sproul is not being quite as consistent with his Reformed Theology since he gives a lot of credit to Thomas Aquinas.

    Here are the links to the two audio files:

    The Defense of the Faith

    Cornelius Van Til: A Life

  15. Ryan Hemelaar November 3, 2008

    Thanks Glenn. I’ll take a listen when I get the time.

    By the way, I am fully reformed in my theology as well, but I don’t see how presuppositionalism (and by that I mean: ‘don’t provide a positive case for Christianity’) logically follows from it.

  16. Mike W. November 3, 2008

    “don’t provide a positive a positive case for Christianity” – Where did you get that? Frame? Frame claims that Van Til said that presuppositional arguments must begin with a negation and not be positive arguments. But Van Til never said that. He said that his method was “indirect” – by which he meant look at the presuppositions behind the facts rather than the facts themselves. He does not mean “indirect” in the technical mathematical sense of necessarily beginning the argument with a negation. The positive argument is that the concrete universal provides the necessary preconditions for rationality. The negative side to that is that the negation of a concrete universal cannot allow for the possibility of rationality. Van Til says that the Christian apologist should present both sides of the coin. Presenting the negative side first is rhetorically favored because the sinner usually first needs to be shown that he is lost before he will be willing to see that the solution is in the God of the Bible.

  17. Glenn November 3, 2008

    Ryan,

    I would agree with Mike that it’s not that presuppositional apologetics will not provide a positive case for Christianity, but that we must get to the root of things in order to do justice to the Reformed worldview that we embrace and love. I would be happy to present a positive case for Christianity, but not without FIRST attacking the presuppositions of the other world view that is in discussion with my worldview. Everyone has a worldview and it seems clear to me that Van Til was only interested in providing a positive case for the Reformed worldview having attacked the foundation of the other worldview that was opposing Christianity.

    The issue to me is that I see too many Christian apologists willing to offer a positive case for Christianity without addressing everyone’s presuppositions and laying them out on the table. That to me is integral to doing justice to the Bible and honoring the Reformed conception of theology.

    I cannot see how it is effective to allow someone to present their positive case and then for me to present mine and leave the presuppositions untouched. That’s why I believe presuppositional apologetics is the only way to do justice to any form of dialogue with non-Christians (and even confused Christians). If we leave it out, we leave out the fundamental problems that the unconverted soul has embraced in his sin.

    Just some thoughts…

  18. Ryan Hemelaar November 5, 2008

    “Where did you get that? Frame?”

    No, I was referring to Gordon Clark’s presuppositional apologetics there. For he thinks that to be really presuppositional, you need to presuppose God and not provide any positive case to the unbeliever.

    Regarding Van Til, he says that the positive arguments we give most provide the unbeliever with absolute certainty about God’s existence. I disagree, because even the transcendental argument does not prove God to a level of certainty (plus doesn’t particularly prove the God of the Bible, unlike they claim). Frame even disagrees with Van Til on that point. Moreover, the transcendental argument is pretty complex to get your head around it, so in my experience, people who are not very intelligent simply cannot understand it, so are they without hope in knowing about God? I don’t think so, for Romans 1 says God is clearly preserved by everyone in the things that have been made, which includes the teleological and cosmological arguments, which I think are much easier to understand for the average person.

    I agree that we must address an unbeliever’s presuppositions when having a dialogue with them. But the additional things that Van Til, Clark, and probably others add onto that truth is what I disagree with. 🙂

  19. Mike W. November 5, 2008

    Regarding Van Til, he says that the positive arguments we give most provide the unbeliever with absolute certainty about God’s existence. I disagree, because even the transcendental argument does not prove God to a level of certainty (plus doesn’t particularly prove the God of the Bible, unlike they claim). Frame even disagrees with Van Til on that point.

    A transcendental argument is a certain proof by nature because it concerns the nature of all facts – how any fact is intelligible. It doesn’t leave any facts out, so it is not probablistic like other types of arguments. The argument can only be uncertain in the sense that you can be uncertain whether you stated the argument correctly. Since the God of the Bible is the source of the meaning of all facts, a transcendental argument fits with the type of God that Christians are trying to prove. Frame is wrong and confused about his criticism of Van Til on this (and other) points.

    Moreover, the transcendental argument is pretty complex to get your head around it, so in my experience, people who are not very intelligent simply cannot understand it, so are they without hope in knowing about God? I don’t think so, for Romans 1 says God is clearly preserved by everyone in the things that have been made, which includes the teleological and cosmological arguments, which I think are much easier to understand for the average person.

    TAG can be stated in simple terms: Nothing in this world has meaning if the world is ultimately meaningless. The complexity can be adjusted for the audience.

    Second, you can know God without being able to articulate an argument for His existence.

    Third, the teleological and cosmological arguments are not valid, unless they are stated as transcendental arguments. Van Til and Bahnsen explained that the transcendental argument is a teleological, cosmological, and ontological argument all rolled up into one. Bahnsen emphasized the cosmological side of it in his debate with Stein – the atheist can’t account for the uniformity of nature.

  20. Ryan Hemelaar November 6, 2008

    “Since the God of the Bible is the source of the meaning of all facts”

    But that doesn’t prove the God of the Bible specifically. For example, if there was a religion that was exactly the same as Christianity, but instead of having a trinity, they had a quad-inity. The transcendental argument does not favour one over the other.

    “Nothing in this world has meaning if the world is ultimately meaningless.”

    That doesn’t prove God though. It’s just a statement that repeats the same point twice but in a different way.

    “the teleological and cosmological arguments are not valid”

    And why are they not valid?

  21. Mike W. November 6, 2008

    But that doesn’t prove the God of the Bible specifically. For example, if there was a religion that was exactly the same as Christianity, but instead of having a trinity, they had a quad-inity. The transcendental argument does not favour one over the other.

    True. I made that point earlier:

    But of course not everything in the Bible can be deduced from the “master concept.” So *in that sense*, TAG is not universal.

    But the argument is no less valid for what it does prove.

    And why are they not valid?

    The teleological and cosmological arguments are not valid if the source of order or unity is not a concrete universal, because another ultimate source of order in the world precludes the possibility of intelligible experience. When Thomas Aquinas talked about an ultimate cause and designer, he equated it with the unmoved mover or Aristotle, which was an abstract, changeless unity. The diversity and change in the world come from a separate source, “matter”, which arises from nothingness. Pure unity (a blank) and pure diversity (chaos) are both unintelligible. A source of unity that precludes the possibility of intelligible experience is useless. It could not be the source of cause and effect relationships in the world.

    The only way to have unity (either in terms of design or causation) among the diversity of objects in the world is to have them both originate from a concrete universal, an absolute mind in which the relationship between unity and diversity is established from all eternity.

  22. Glenn November 6, 2008

    Ryan,

    I like the points that Mike is making, but to help you out a little… If you listen to the audio I pointed to earlier, called “the defense of the faith,” it should help you understand the context into which Van Til was making the TAG.

    In other words, Van Til was talking about the “concrete universal” because the philosophers used that language, etc. I know that the argument does not prove the Christian Truine God, but it was Van Til’s context, like Paul on the hill in Athens, that lead him to use that argument as his base argument in philosophy in order help the philosophers see what they were missing.

    I’m not an expert, so that audio should help clarify things that I am not sure of regarding Van Til’s personal historical context.

    Just some food for thought! 🙂

  23. Mike W. November 8, 2008

    As the audio explains, Van Til adopted the phrase “concrete universal” from Idealist philosophers. Early on, some people claimed that Van Til was adopting the whole Idealist philosophy just by using this term. However, Van Til argued that the Idealists never had a true concrete universal. For Hegel, it was a remote and possibly unattainable goal at the end of history, a product of abstract unity and diversity coming together through time. For others, the concrete universal was subject to the forces of history and lacked omniscience about the future, which makes abstract diversity ultimate.

    For the Christian, the Calvinist especially, the relationship between all individual facts and all concepts has been established from eternity past. Every fact and the meaning of every fact has been eternally predestined by God. The God of Calvin is a true concrete universal.

    Van Til often talks about “the ontological Trinity” as the precondition for rationality. But he never talks about three persons rather than some other plurality of persons being necessary for the possibility of rationality. Whenever he uses this phrase he immediately starts talking about the “equal ultimacy of the one and the many.” He refers to the Trinity on this issue because on the orthodox understanding, the three persons cannot dismissed simply as a way of talking about one God, nor are the three persons independent of one another. So the orthodox understanding of the Trinity means that unity and diversity are equally ultimate in God, which is is the same thing he means when he talks about God as a concrete universal.

  24. Ryan Hemelaar November 8, 2008

    “When Thomas Aquinas talked about an ultimate cause and designer, he equated it with the unmoved mover or Aristotle, which was an abstract, changeless unity.”

    Well if you look at the Kalam Cosmological argument, we see that it proves a powerful, transcendent, intelligent, uncaused, personal creator for everything in the universe (includes order/logic). That is nothing like Aristotle’s Prime Mover. So I do not see how you can say it is invalid.

    On the other hand, I can’t see how the transcendental argument proves anything more than a transcendent cause for logic/design (TAG is a sort of cosmological argument). I would like to hear how you can prove the attributes of God through this argument.

  25. Jamin Hubner April 13, 2010

    Ya'll should read the first essay of "The Portable Presuppositionalist" (see Amazon.com).

    ja