presuppositionalism

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The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.

The Presuppositional Apologetic: Theory

Van Til was very adamant that believers cannot and should not give up any ground to those who are non-Christian. He argued that “Christian theism is a unit. Christianity and theism are implied in one another… Christianity can never be separated from some theory about the existence and the nature of God” (Christian Apologetics, 17). Again, he is adamant: “We must defend Christian-theism as a unit” (The Defense of the Faith, 28).

Along with his emphasis on defending Christianity as a unit, Van Til equally impressed the point of the extreme divergence of views between the Christian and the non-Christian. Apologetics must acknowledge the nature of man. Van Til placed particular emphasis upon the notion that apologists cannot ignore that “we shall have to choose between two theories of knowledge. According to one theory God is the final court of appeal; according to the other theory man is the final court of appeal” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Because of this, “it becomes quite impossible…. [to] agree with the non-Christian in his principles of methodology to see whether or not Christian theism be true” (The Defense of the Faith, 118-119).

The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).

However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.

The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).

What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that  there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):

Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].

…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)

It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.

His argument is therefore a type of “transcendental argument.” He argues that only within the Christian worldview can even the rationalism of the unbeliever make sense. Non-Christians may reject belief in God, but this is not a rational rejection, according to Van Til. Rather, “Sin will reveal itself in the field of knowledge in the fact that man makes himself the ultimate court of appeal… Man has declared his autonomy as over against God” (The Defense of the Faith, 58). Mankind is actively suppressing the knowledge of God. “It is not that we are merely brought into existence by God, but our meaning also depends upon God” (The Defense of the Faith, 63).

To sum up Van Til’s apologetic, then, there are three major points:

1) There is no neutral starting point between the Christian and non-Christian. One must presuppose either.

2) Christians should therefore presuppose Christianity in their apologetic and seek to show how only upon Christian presuppositions can one make sense of reality.

3) The transcendental argument: Only if God exists can their be a basis for morality, science, history, and rationality.

Analysis and Application

I admit that I am quite sympathetic to those who argue this type of apologetic is viciously circular. For example, one proponent of Van Tilian apologetics is John Frame. In his defense of presuppositional apologetics, he writes, “Premise 1: Whatever the Bible says is true. Premise 2: The Bible says it is the Word of God. Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God” (Frame, 356, cited below). I can’t help but think that while this argument is deductively valid, using P1 is to beg the question against the non-Christian. But of course, that’s exactly what Van Til urges. One must start with Christian theism and the Bible as presuppositions and reason from there.  Therefore, I’m inclined to think that presuppositionalism cannot stand on its own. However, I do think that Van Til’s method can be saved from logical absurdity and made applicable in a part of a “cumulative case” type of reasoning (or certainly, it could be paired with a type of Reformed Epistemology).

The way I would propose for this is to utilize Van Til’s apologetic by showing Christians and non-Christians how philosophical presuppositions can color one’s evaluation of evidence and even of reasoning itself. Instead of offering only evidences or only witness in a vacuum, the Christian apologist should indeed focus upon how one’s presuppositions change one’s evaluation of evidence or witnessing. One presuppositional approach to the problem of evil can be found, I’ve suggested, in Job.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the transcendental argument is extremely potent. By arguing that even the process of reasoning cannot make sense apart from God, Christians can effectively place the burden of proof upon their opponents to show how their system can cohere with reality.

Finally, I can’t help but appreciate the tenacity with which presuppostional apologists, in the spirit of Van Til, pursue incoherent positions and actively turn people back to the presuppositional approach. The presuppositional apologetic, while not necessarily one I think can stand on its own, is extremely powerful.

Conclusion

Reading Van Til leaves me at points breathless with his innovation and boldness; but at other points it leaves me frustrated. He is not easy to understand, nor are his arguments always convincing. Too often, he axiomatically states a position and assumes his argument has carried his point. However, one can hardly dismiss the whole of Van Til’s thought as useless to Christian apologetics. Van Til’s transcendental argument has staying power, and his urges to focus upon presuppositions cannot be ignored.

This is but the first in a series of posts I have planned on presuppositional apologetics. I will be analyzing Van Til’s thought further, as well as diving into some other well-known proponents of presuppositionalism like John Frame, K. Scott Oliphant, and Greg Bahnsen. A few posts will focus on applied presuppositional apologetics.

Sources

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith 4th Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008).

—-, Christian Apologetics 2nd Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003).

John Frame, “A Presuppositional Apologist’s Closing Remarks” in 5 Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000).

Links [Will update as series continues]

Proof that God Exists– an insightful view of presuppositional apologetics in practice.

Choosing Hats– A mammoth collection of articles from a presuppositional apologetic.

SDG.

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