James Anderson responded to my post on James White and Presuppositionalism by providing a link to an article he wrote defending Van Til. (link) Before getting into specifics on Anderson's article, I wanted to make some general comments. Undoubtedly, Van Til stated what I said he stated: 1) unbelievers don’t have true knowledge, 2: Christians and non-Christians have no common ground, 3) we should embrace apparent contradiction and circular reasoning and 4) our knowledge doesn't conincide with God's (i.e. scepticism). I will document this below. But it's also true, as Anderson's article points out, that Van Til at times said the opposite of these points or claimed to be misunderstood. Van Til's harshest critics (Clark & Robbins) simply accuse Van Til of contradiction himself. On the other hand, James Anderson (and other Van Til advocates such as Frame) seem to indicate that Van Til was not contradicting himself but rather had some deep, insightful meaning. However, they spend the bulk of there defense on explaining what Van Til did not mean rather then sharing what exactly Van Til's deep meaning was. Of course, if Van Til was irrational, then one could fill volumes with what Van Til didn't mean, because ultimately he didn't mean anything. So at best, Van Til is too confusing to be of any use and at worst he is an open advocate of contradiction.
Unbelievers Don’t Have True Knowledge
Quotes from Van Til
“The argument in favour of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove if one is not a Christian-theist he knows nothing whatsoever as he ought to know about anything..........On the contrary the Christian-theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God.” Metaphysics of Apologetics, page 194, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1931.
“The Scriptures nowhere appeal to the unregenerated reason as a qualified judge..........When scripture says: ‘Come, let us reason together’, it usually speaks to the people of God, and if it does speak to others, it never regards them as equal with God or as really competent to judge.” Introduction to Systematic Theology, page 29.
“The break between God and ‘natural man’ is..........complete.” Common Grace and the Gospel, page 153.
“But the reason of sinful men will invariably act wrongly.” Apologetics, page 49.
“This does not mean that we are thus after all granting to the natural man the ability to reason correctly.” Introduction to Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, page 39.
“Even Calvin, though by his doctrine of ‘common grace’ he was in a much better position to do justice to the knowledge of non-Christian science without succumbing to it than others were, did not bring out with sufficient clearness at all times that the natural man is as a blind as a mole with respect to natural things as well as with respect to spiritual things..........The mechanical separation between earthly things so often found has almost disappeared from Calvin’s
writings. Yet on occasion when he is trying hard to bring specific content into the notion that the natural man has certain knowledge with respect to the universe which is good as far as it goes, he falls back on the old distinction without criticizing it.” Introduction to Systematic Theology, page 82.
I really think these quotes by themselves justify my saying Van Til said these things, without even having to get into Anderson's article. All remaining dispute must be on what Van Til meant, not what he said.
James Anderson's Response
Van Til claimed that unbelievers don't know anything
Could Van Til have made such a patently absurd claim? Surely this would be reason enough to dismiss his epistemology as fatally flawed! The fact is that Van Til held no such belief — at least, not in the sense that many critics have attributed to him. Indeed, he explicitly denied this misunderstanding of his position
What misunderstanding? Anderson denies Van Til believed something but doesn't say what Van Til supposedly doesn't believe. To reveal that would perhaps give Van Til a boundary that he couldn't live with.
The first objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical questions 'Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they employ?' The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently.
(The Defense of the Faith, p. 103)
Van Til doesn't really say non-Christians discover truth. He shifts the topic to methods rather than the resultant discovery of truth. Do non-Christians, using their methods inconsistently, discover truth? Van Til doesn't say.
We are well aware of the fact that non-Christian have a great deal of knowledge about this world which is true as far as it goes. That is, there is a sense in which we can and must allow for the value of knowledge of non-Christians. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 26)
Note the qualifications 'as far as it goes' and 'a sense'. But Van Til doesn't explain further why he had to make such qualifications.
The apostle Paul speaks of the natural man as actually possessing the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:19-21).(The Defense of the Faith, p. 92)
Yes, but what did Van Till think Paul mean by that? David Turner studies Van Til's comments on Romans 1:18-21 and concludes that Van Til advocate the paradoxical position that unbelievers are both theists and atheists. (Turner. Cornelius Van Til and Romans 1:18-21 A Study in the Epistemology of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grace Theological Journal 2.1 (1981) 45-58. p 56)
Scripture on the Issue
2 Peter 2:20 For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.
James 2:19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!
Acts 26:27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe.”
God's word clearly tells us that unbelievers can have true knowledge; even of spiritual truths.
Denial of Common Ground with Unbelievers
Quotes from Van Til
I deny common ground with the natural man, dead in trespasses and sins, who follows the god of this world”(Christianity Today, December 30, 1977, 22)
“On this point I may say that if the idea of neutral territory (common to Christians and
unbelievers) does fairly represent the traditional view, then I can only disagree with it..”
Common Grace and the Gospel, page 155.
“[Van Til objects to the] Aquinas-Butler type of argument (which) assumed that there is an area of fact on the interpretation of which Christians and non-Christians agree.” Introduction to Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, page 20, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970.
Again, it's OK to say Van Til said these things, because he did, regardless of what his meaning might be.
James Anderson's Response
I have been told that on my view the Christian can say nothing more to the non-Christian than: 'You work on one set of presuppositions and I work on another set of presuppositions, and that is the end of the matter. There simply is no common ground of any sort between us.' I would now make as plain as possible that only because reality is what the self-attesting Christ of Scripture has told us it is do we, as believers and as unbelievers, have common ground at all. If the triune God of Scripture did not exist and if He did not do what He says in Scripture He does, i.e. create and direct the whole course of history, the unbeliever would have no standing place in order to engage in his effort by his false systems to deny the existence and work of God.
(Toward A Reformed Apologetic, 1972 pamphlet, sect. 15)
Here Van Til does not tell us what this common ground is or even if the unbeliever holds tothe propositions that make up this common ground. Common ground may or may not be understood as a set of truths believed in by both sides.
Van Til's essential position was that although there is certainly common ground between believers and unbelievers (and thus apologetics is possible), that common ground is by no means neutral ground.
It is commonness 'without qualification,' that is, the idea of neutral territory of interpretation between believers and non-believers that I reject. (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 152, emphasis original)
Again, at best we are given what Van Til didn't mean - and we certainly don't have an assertion that the people of God and the people of the world share some common beliefs.
In Van Til's view, this 'common' knowledge must in principle presuppose either the truth or the falsity of Christianity — and in actuality, he believed, it presupposes the truth of Christianity. (This conviction is, in a nutshell, what Van Til's celebrated 'transcendental argument' for Christian theism seeks to demonstrate.) We might put Van Til's position like this: both believer and unbeliever stand on common ground, but that ground is Christian ground. Thus, the apologetic task is not to move the unbeliever onto Christian ground, but to show him that he has been standing on Christian ground all along!
For Van Til, the 'point of contact' is not to be located in religiously neutral premises, but in the fact that the unbeliever is created in the image of God and, although he professes otherwise, he knows it. God's self-revelation in the created order, and particularly in the soul of man, is inescapable.
This again is a denial of common ground in the sense of shared beliefs. Unbelievers don't believe in the truth of Christianity. To say unbelievers presuppose of the truth of Christianity (either inconsistently or subconsciously) does not constitute common ground between believers and unbelievers. Even the contradiction of unbelievers being believers doesn't seem to get Van Til off the hook here.
The point of contact for the gospel, then, must be sought within the natural man. Deep down in his mind every man knows that he is the creature of God and responsible to God. Every man, at bottom, knows that he is a covenant-breaker. (Christian Apologetics, p. 57)
Only by thus finding the point of contact in man's sense of deity that lies underneath his own conception of self-consciousness as ultimate can we be both true to Scripture and effective in reasoning with the natural man. (Ibid., p. 58)
Even Pelagius would cringe at this assertion of man's inner goodness.
The Scripture on Common Ground
Matthew 22:41- 46 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42"What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" "The son of David," they replied. 43He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him 'Lord'? For he says, 44" 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." '45If then David calls him 'Lord,' how can he be his son?" 46No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Acts 17:2-4, 11Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas...These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
Christ and Paul both used common ground between believers and unbelievers to defend the faith when they argued based on the Old Testament.
Quotes from Van Til
All teaching of scripture is apparently contradictory (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 142)
“All the truths of the Christian religion have of necessity the appearance of being contradictory” (Common Grace and the Gospel, 165).
“While we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory.” Common Grace and the Gospel, page 9.
“Shall we..........say that the contradiction that we think we see (in Scripture) is no real contradiction at all? We cannot follow (this line of thinking).” Toward a Reformed Apologetic, page 4
“We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning possible to finite man.” Rushdoony quoting Van Til. page 24.
Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. The Defense of the Faith, p.44
“It is true of course that in matters of historical communication we cannot attain unto impartial and impersonal knowledge of facts.” Richardson quoting Van Til. Christian Apologetics, SCM Press, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948. page 12.
“Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about Him by any other way, than by a transcendental or circular argument. The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of antitheism.” Metaphysics of Apologetics, page 16.
“all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning.” Apologetics, page 62
James Anderson's Response
Thus although circularity is necessary in some sense, it need not be a vicious or fallacious circularity (as is the case in the example given above):
The charge is made that we engage in circular reasoning. Now if it be called circular reasoning when we hold it necessary to presuppose the existence of God, we are not ashamed of it because we are firmly convinced that all forms of reasoning that leave God out of account will end in ruin. Yet we hold that our reasoning cannot fairly be called circular reasoning [i.e., begging the question —JA], because we are not reasoning about and seeking to explain facts by assuming the existence and meaning of certain other facts on the same level of being with the facts we are investigating, and then explaining these facts in turn by the facts with which we began. We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe. ([A Survey of Christian Epistemology]., p. 201, emphasis original)
Here, James Anderson isn't really denying that Van Til advocated circular reasoning.
Van Til characteristically used extreme and antithetical language to express what he took to be important principles. In this case, his point was that since Scripture is the self-revelation of a God who is incomprehensible (but not inapprehensible; we have partial but not full understanding of him), we should hardly be surprised to find points of logical tension — 'apparent contradiction' or 'paradox' — in our systematization of that revelation. For example: God is all-glorious, yet we are told that our actions can 'give glory' to him. (Note that for Van Til such 'paradoxes' are only apparently contradictory, not genuinely so; the logical perplexities arise because of our finite, creaturely perspective. See ibid. p. 9ff.) Furthermore, Van Til observed that the doctrines of Scripture are intimately and inextricably related to another, forming a complex system of truth. Because some of these doctrines are 'paradoxical', the system presented to us as a whole system is 'apparently contradictory'.
Again, James Anderson isn't really denying that Van Til held to apparent contradictions in the bible.
Yet doesn't the presence of 'apparent contradiction' circumvent any attempt to systematize doctrine or draw logical conclusions from Scripture? Not necessarily. It simply means that we must be alert to the possibility of such paradoxes arising, and if all attempts at resolving an 'apparent contradiction' prove unsuccessful we should avoid deducing erroneous conclusions based on one side of the paradox taken in isolation from its counterpoint. John Frame explains:
If we are to think analogically, using Christian limiting concepts [the two sides of an 'apparent contradiction' —JA], we should not deduce from God's unity that he cannot be three, or vice versa. Nor should we reason that because God has foreordained all things, finite beings cannot bring glory to him. Insofar as these paradoxes influence everything we say about God and man, they inject 'apparent contradiction' into all of our theology.
But we can make many deductions from God's unity that do not compromise his triune nature. For example, since the true God is one, and we must worship only a true God, it follows that we must not worship many gods. And to reason that since God foreordains all things, he foreordains the fluctuations of the stock market, does not compromise the full bucket paradox [i.e., that human actions are significant to an all-sufficient God —JA]. Therefore, to acknowledge apparent contradictions is not to renounce all use of logic. To be sure, we must always ask ourselves whether our attempts at logical deduction fall afoul of the general paradoxes pertaining to the divine nature and the Creator-creature distinction. Some such attempts do; some do not. If we have asked this question in a responsible way, then nothing prevents our free use of logical deduction.
(Cornelius Van Til, p. 169)
Same thing. Contradictions are being accepted. If you can have contradictions sometimes, how do you know when you can use reason and when you cannot?
Scripture on the Issue1 Corinthians 14:9-11 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.
John 17:17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth
Psalm 119:113 I hate double-minded men, but I love your law.
Psalm 119:130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.
God's word is not non-sense.
Van Til Quote
"we dare not maintain that [God’s] knowledge and [human] knowledge coincide at any single point." Minutes of the 12th General Assembly of the OPC, 1945,15
James Anderson Response
In the first place, it is possible in this way to see that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man coincide at every point in the sense that always and everywhere man confronts that which is already fully known or interpreted by God. The point of reference cannot but be the same for man as for God. There is no fact that man meets in any of his investigation where the face of God does not confront him. On the other hand in this way it is possible to see that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man coincide at no point in the sense that in his awareness of meaning of anything, in his mental grasp or understanding of anything, man is at each point dependent upon a prior act of unchangeable understanding and revelation on the part of God. The form of the revelation of God to man must come to man in accordance with his creaturely limitations.
(An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp. 164-65)
Note three things about what Van Til writes here. First of all, the claim in question is immediately followed by the words "in the sense that"; thus it is only in a certain qualified sense that God's knowledge and man's knowledge are said never to coincide.
Secondly, Van Til begins the paragraph by stating that there is a sense in which God's knowledge and man's knowledge coincide at every point. Thus it is clear that Van Til's aim here is to distinguish the aspects in which divine knowledge and human knowledge do coincide and the aspects in which they do not. Moreover, the sense in which (according to Van Til) they coincide is such as to preclude antirealism or skepticism; for anything that man could know (i.e., the revelation with which he is confronted) is, in the nature of the case, already an item of God's knowledge. (Hence Van Til's oft-repeated claim that our knowledge amounts to "thinking God's thoughts after him.")
Finally, note the precise sense in which there is said to be no point of coincidence between God's knowledge and man's knowledge: it concerns the character of the knowledge, rather than its content. At root, it is a question of dependence. God's knowledge is original, constructive, and utterly independent of any prior knowledge. In stark contrast, man's knowledge is derivative, reconstructive, and utterly dependent on God's prior knowledge. (As Van Til later puts it, "God's knowledge is archetypal and ours ectypal." Ibid., p. 203.) In this respect, then, it is clear that God's knowledge and man's knowledge have nothing in common (much as God's will and man's will have nothing in common with respect to the foreordination of history). Moreover, rather than opening the door to antirealism or skepticism, Van Til argued, this relationship between divine knowledge and human knowledge underpins the epistemological realism of the Christian faith (i.e., the notion that we can acquire knowledge of an objective reality independent of our own minds).
As with many of Van Til's distinctive views, this characterization of God's knowledge and man's knowledge is certainly open to debate. However, it should be quite clear from the above that his "no point of coincidence" claim should not be superficially dismissed as obviously wrong or epistemologically self-destructive.
A lot has to be read into Van Til here to get him off the hook and frankly after it's done, we are still left wondering what it means for our knowledge to depend on God's knowledge.
Van Til said what I said he said. As for what he meant, who knows? For my part, I think the best way to understand Van Til is as a Calvinist version of Immanuel Kant. At least, if you trade Kant's "noumena world" with Van Til's "knowledge of God", Van Til starts to behave himself with a certain amount of predictibily. But if James Anderson wishes to read him differently, at best all we get is confussion rather than open contradiction.