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Throughout his ministry, Dr. R.C. Sproul was a friendly critic of the presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til. When I say that Dr. Sproul was a “friendly” critic, I mean he recognized that Van Til and those who consider themselves “Van Tillian” in their approach to apologetics, or the defense of the faith, are brothers in Christ. As a young man, Dr. Sproul spent time with Van Til, and afterward he always said that Van Til was a godly Christian man. Many others have said the same about Van Til, and there is no reason to doubt their evaluations. However, although he admired Van Til’s Christian character, Dr. Sproul was critical of his teaching at certain points. He believed that Van Til’s doctrine contained some serious misunderstandings and errors.1 Dr. Sproul was surely correct in his assessment of Van Til’s character, and I believe he was also correct in his attempt to note the flaws in Van Til’s thought. This article is an attempt to carry on Dr. Sproul’s legacy of “friendly criticism” of Van Til’s views.

But why is it necessary to continue such criticism? Many Christians find the ongoing debate over Van Til and presuppositionalism tiresome, if not pointless. This is understandable. The debate has continued for around seventy years, and it seems as if few on either side have been persuaded. If neither side can be persuaded, and if those on both sides of the debate consider those on the other side to be brothers in Christ, why not simply agree to disagree and move on? Such an approach is tempting, but it fails to do justice to the importance of the issues. In fact, it fails to do justice to Van Til himself. Van Til believed that what he was teaching was of the utmost importance, and he dedicated his entire life to it. We show respect to his theological labors by taking them seriously and considering them carefully. Van Til himself said that the soundness of his view should be “judged on its merits,” and that is what I have sought to do in this article.2 Another reason why the discussion and debate must continue is the fact that Van Til’s thought has had a profound influence on Reformed churches in the United States and around the world. If there are significant errors in his thought, then the effects of those errors will be magnified due to his influence.

Continued critical reflection on the teaching of Cornelius Van Til is, therefore, fully justified, but there are several obstacles to such an endeavor that must be mentioned briefly before proceeding. In the first place, the concepts Van Til discusses are inherently complex. He is dealing with profound issues in metaphysics, epistemology, systematic theology, and more. Compounding such problems, however, is Van Til’s unique writing style. Mark Garcia, himself a proponent of Van Til’s thought, speaks of Van Til’s “often impenetrable and painful prose.”3 In addition to the painful prose, Van Til often gives theological and philosophical terms his own unique definitions. Garcia speaks of this “sometimes maddening revisionist use of vocabulary.”4

Another factor that increases the difficulty of understanding Van Til’s writing is related to the nature of his philosophical training. It occurred against the backdrop of philosophical idealism. Van Til desired to address those who had been educated against the same philosophical backdrop. He sought to speak their language, as it were, so he often borrowed and adapted Kantian and idealist terminology (e.g., “limiting concept,” “concrete universal”).5 The problem is that this terminology is not familiar to most late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Christians, making the interpretation of Van Til’s work more difficult. We will come back to this issue presently.

The nature of Van Til’s writing style and his idiosyncratic use of obscure philosophical terminology are not the only obstacles to a careful and critical evaluation of his thought. Other obstacles have arisen as a result of the ongoing debate over Van Til’s teaching. Some Van Tillians, for example, think that Van Til’s critics have never truly understood Van Til. John Frame, for example, says that Van Til’s debunkers “always seem to miss the obvious.”6 To the extent that this is true, it means that his defenders have had to spend a large amount of time correcting misinterpretations.7

It is, of course, possible to misinterpret and misunderstand Van Til, and this is true not only among critics. There are differences of opinion on how to interpret and apply his thought even among Van Tillians.8 This should not be a surprise. There are disagreements about how to interpret almost every significant theologian in the history of the church, and Van Til is no exception. I realize that I, too, may misunderstand one or more aspects of Van Til’s thought, but I have made every attempt to read him not only critically, but also carefully and charitably. If I have misunderstood or misrepresented Van Til at any point in the following critique, I welcome correction.

Another formidable obstacle to critical reflection on Van Til’s thought is the extreme skeptical wariness some Reformed Christians have about considering any criticisms of Van Til. Van Til believed and taught that his view is the only approach to philosophy and apologetics that is consistently Christian and Reformed, and he argued that those who disagree hold views that are compromises with pagan, Roman Catholic, or Arminian thought.9 Such claims are not uncommon in the academic and popular writings of Van Til’s defenders as well.10 These claims have sometimes had two closely related effects. First, they can lead, and have led, some of Van Til’s followers to consider any criticism of his teaching as arising from tainted, and therefore untrustworthy, sources. Second, they can lead, and have led, some of Van Til’s followers to treat him almost as if he were beyond criticism.11 When such an attitude is taken, serious and critical reflection is almost guaranteed to be ruled out.

Although there are obstacles, the issues that Cornelius Van Til addressed are enormously important in Christian theology. A prayerful and careful study of his approach is an opportunity to think through them in an effort to come to a more consistently biblical view. Such an effort is inherently valuable regardless of one’s evaluation of Van Til’s teachings. I trust that both proponents and opponents of Van Til’s teachings share the goal of conforming their thinking and teaching to Scripture. We are all seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. My hope is that those readers who sympathize with Van Til’s teaching believe the same about Van Til’s critics.

A final introductory thought. Those readers who are already inclined to agree with criticism of Van Til’s teachings may find themselves tempted to respond with an uncritical knee-jerk “Amen!” to what I say here. Those readers who are already inclined to agree with Van Til’s teachings may find themselves tempted to respond with an uncritical knee-jerk “Anathema!” to what I say here. Uncritical, knee-jerk responses, however, are not helpful when considering difficult and complex theological topics. Regardless of where any of us already stands on this debate, we should hear and consider both sides if we have not already done so (Prov. 18:17). Van Til was not infallible, but neither am I. Neither his defenders nor his critics are infallible. God alone is infallible. It is imperative that we examine the merits of Van Til’s teaching as well as the merits of the arguments against it, rather than being mindless cheerleaders for one side or the other.12

A Summary Overview of Van Til’s Thought

Cornelius Van Til was born in the Netherlands on May 3, 1895, and his family emigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. He was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and attended Calvin College and Calvin Seminary before transferring to Princeton Seminary. When the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was founded by J. Gresham Machen and others in 1936, Van Til became a member of the new denomination and served as a minister there for the remainder of his life. He also taught full time at Westminster Seminary from 1929 until 1972. He published his first book in 1946 and would go on to write some thirty books, numerous pamphlets, and well over two hundred articles and book reviews.13 He died in 1987, having established himself as one of the most influential American Reformed theologians of the twentieth century.14

As this all-too-brief summary indicates, we cannot begin to understand Cornelius Van Til unless we realize that he was first and foremost a Christian in the Reformed tradition. He devoted his life to propagating and defending Reformed theology in the service of the church of Jesus Christ.15 Van Til was not interested in the defense of any sort of “mere Christianity.”16 With B.B. Warfield, he agreed that “Calvinism is just religion in its purity,” and it was that religion he intended to defend.17 His goal was to develop an apologetic methodology that would be consistent with Reformed theology.18 He believed that all other apologetic methodologies lacked such consistency.19

As a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Van Til was required to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. His commitment to confessional Reformed theology is evident throughout his works, but particularly important for our purposes is Van Til’s doctrine of God. When he discusses the nature of God, Van Til affirms the attributes found in chapter 2 of the Westminster Confession.20 He teaches, for example, the simplicity,21 pure actuality,22 aseity,23 immutability,24 and infinity25 of God. He also upholds the doctrine of the Trinity found in the Reformed confessions and in the Nicene Creed,26 as well as the doctrine of Christ found in the Reformed confessions and the Definition of Chalcedon.27 In short, Van Til affirms classic Christian Trinitarian theism.

Van Til’s doctrine of God is important because of his argument that the ontological Trinity is “foundational to everything else as a principle of explanation.”28 This God is “the only possible presupposition for the possibility of predication.”29 All human knowledge “rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.”30 Van Til is talking not only about religious knowledge. He explains, “True scientific certainty, no less than true religious certainty, must be based upon the presupposition of the ontological trinity.”31 The ontological Trinity is the final reference point required for interpreting all phenomena.32 In short, classical Trinitarian theism “is the foundation of everything else that we hold dear.”33 Why is the ontological Trinity the foundation for the correct interpretation of all facts? Because our triune God decreed all facts and created all facts and providentially controls all facts.34

The distinction between this God and the creation is a crucial element in Van Til’s thought. This idea is fundamental to any truly Christian metaphysics. All non-Christian worldviews, according to Van Til, blur or deny the Creator-creature distinction.35 Even professing Christian views often fail to maintain this distinction as they should. Van Til argues, for example, that Roman Catholicism fails to teach the Creator-creature distinction, holding instead to the idea of “being in general.”36 He repeatedly finds fault with Thomas Aquinas on precisely this point, claiming that Aquinas borrowed the Aristotelian doctrine of the analogy of being.37 According to Van Til, Aquinas “reduces the Creator-creature distinction to something that is consistent with the idea of God and the cosmos as involved in a chain of being, with varying degrees of intensity.”38

Among other things, understanding the Creator-creature distinction helps us understand the relationship between God’s knowledge and ours. Van Til’s explanation of God’s knowledge is fairly typical of classic Reformed theology.39 God is omniscient, and His knowledge of Himself and of all things is comprehensive. Man, on the other hand, even in his unfallen state, is a finite creature, so his knowledge is limited and partial. Man’s knowledge does not have to be comprehensive, however, in order to be true.40 In order for man’s knowledge of anything to be true, it must correspond to God’s knowledge.41 As Van Til explains, “Our ideas must correspond to God’s ideas.”42 Human knowledge, therefore, is “analogical.”43 Ultimately, man’s knowledge depends on divine knowledge.44 This means that “no fact in the world can be interpreted truly except it be seen as created by God.”45 This is what it means to say that all human knowledge “rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.”46

What was the effect of the fall on man’s knowledge? According to Van Til, man’s mind has been corrupted, but “man’s constitution as a rational and moral being has not been destroyed.”47 The laws of logic, including the law of noncontradiction, being an expression of the nature of God, were not themselves destroyed, but “man’s ability to use them rightly was weakened.”48 In other words, “sin did not destroy any of the powers that God gave man at the beginning when he endowed him with his image.”49 If man had lost these natural powers, then he would no longer be responsible.50 Fallen human beings, therefore, “have good powers of perception, good powers of reasoning, etc.,” but Van Til insists that Christians must oppose those who say that fallen human reason “can and does function normally or near to normally even after the fall.”51

This brings us to one of the most important elements of Van Til’s thought, which is his doctrine of the antithesis between believers and unbelievers.52 Since the fall, there are two classes of men: covenant keepers and covenant breakers.53 No one is neutral.54 Covenant breakers do not presuppose the ontological Trinity in their thinking, and thus they are blind with regard to the truth.55 The non-Christian sees all of reality through the lens of his own false worldview. Van Til uses the analogy of colored glasses to illustrate the point, saying, “The sinner has cemented colored glasses to his eyes, which he cannot remove.”56 These colored glasses distort the non-Christian’s view of everything he sees. This means he sees nothing correctly and therefore knows nothing correctly. This antithesis is seen most clearly in fallen man’s suppression of the knowledge of God. The wicked suppression of the knowledge of God affects man’s knowledge of everything.

Van Til emphasizes this point throughout his writings, saying that fallen man lacks true knowledge of anything. He is “blind with respect to the truth wherever the truth appears.”57 Also, no man “can have any true knowledge of anything except through the wisdom of Christ,” and it is anti-Christian to say otherwise.58 Fallen man “cannot, unless the scales be removed from his eyes, know anything truly about God or about anything else.”59 Because everything is created by God, “Not one single fact in this universe can be known truly by man without the existence of God.”60

Van Til argues that even Calvin did not go far enough on this point. Calvin did not make it clear that “the natural man is as blind as a mole with respect to natural things as well as with respect to spiritual things.”61 Van Til explains: “Unless we maintain that the natural man does not know the flowers truly, we cannot logically maintain that he does not know God truly. All knowledge is interrelated.”62 This is why, according to Van Til, the Reformed Christian must reject all traditional forms of natural theology.63

In order to avoid misunderstanding, Van Til’s statements regarding the ethical antithesis between the believer and the unbeliever must be read in conjunction with what he says about common grace. Van Til explains: “The common grace problem deals with this question: What do entities which will one day be wholly different from one another have in common before that final stage of separation is reached?”64 In other words, the antithesis reaches its full expression only after the final judgment. Until the final day, God’s common grace restrains the full expression of the antithesis. This means that the sinner is not as bad as he could be.65 Just as there is the remnant of the “old man” in the believer, there is similarly an “old man” in the sinner in the sense that the image of God in the sinner is not annihilated.66

Non-Christians, therefore, can and do have knowledge. As Van Til explains: “We are well aware of the fact that non-Christians have a great deal of knowledge about this world that is true as far as it goes. That is, there is a sense in which we can and must allow for the value of the knowledge of non-Christians.”67 There are, in fact, “elements of truth” even in non-Christian systems of thought.68 Christians can, therefore, “make formal use of the categories of thought discovered by Aristotle or any other thinker.”69 Both believers and nonbelievers can contribute to science.70 This is possible because sinners are not consistent with their epistemological principles. They can “discover that, which for the matter of it, is true and usable for the Christian.”71 This is important because the Bible is not “a textbook on science.”72 It doesn’t tell us every detail about everything in God’s created world. This is why believers are not, by virtue of being believers, transformed into expert scientists: “To become an expert botanist or physicist one must study botany or physics.”73

It is clear, then, that Van Til does not think unbelievers have no knowledge at all. But how can his statements to that effect be reconciled with the seemingly absolute statements found elsewhere in his writings? Van Til rejects the idea that we can explain this by speaking of different degrees of knowledge.74 Instead, he considers the problem by speaking of different points of view.75 From an ultimate point of a view, one that is epistemologically fully self-conscious and consistent with its false principles, the unbeliever can know nothing truly.76 From another point of view, one that is not fully self-conscious or consistent, the unbeliever can and does know many things. As Van Til explains, “It is of these systems of their own interpretation that we speak when we say that men are as wrong in their interpretation of trees as in their interpretation of God.”77 Although Van Til doesn’t say it in this way, it seems that the difference may be rooted in the distinction between the unbeliever’s knowledge of things in the world (which can be true “as far as it goes”) and the unbeliever’s accounting for his true knowledge on his own false assumptions about reality (something that he cannot do).78

For Van Til, the unbeliever’s attempted suppression of the knowledge of God affects his knowledge of everything else.

We have seen that for Van Til, the unbeliever’s attempted suppression of the knowledge of God affects his knowledge of everything else. But is the unbeliever’s attempted suppression of the knowledge of God successful? Understanding Van Til’s answer to this question will help us better grasp his apologetic methodology. Van Til argues, on the basis of Romans 1, that every human being has a knowledge of the true God and that every sinner tries to suppress that knowledge.79 Here we witness the ethical antithesis. However, common grace restrains the ethical antithesis, and the suppression of all knowledge of God is unsuccessful.80 Every human being, therefore, retains a sense of his Creator. According to Van Til, it is to this knowledge of God “that the Christian apologetic must appeal.”81

According to Van Til, apologetics is the defense of the system of theology found in the Reformed confessions and elaborated in Reformed systematic theology.82 With Abraham Kuyper and contrary to B.B. Warfield, Van Til sees apologetics as an element of systematic theology rather than as something that precedes systematic theology.83 Furthermore, just as systematic theology presupposes the existence of God, so too must every part of that systematic theology presuppose the existence of God.84 Because apologetics is part of systematic theology, apologetics must presuppose the existence of God.

What does this mean? According to Van Til, a consistently Reformed apologetic methodology is one that argues by presupposition. He explains, “To argue by presupposition is to indicate what are the epistemological and metaphysical principles that underlie and control one’s method.”85 Arguing by presupposition results in the use of a transcendental argument. According to Van Til, “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.”86 What does this look like in practice? According to Van Til, the Christian should put himself in his opponent’s place “for the sake of argument” in order to show him that on the assumption of his worldview, there is no accounting for anything: facts, intelligibility, etc. The Christian should then invite his opponent to assume the Christian worldview “for the sake of argument” in order to show that it alone accounts for facts and intelligibility.87

Van Til contrasts his presuppositional method of apologetics with “the traditional method.”88 He says, “The traditional method offered first in detail by Thomas Aquinas in its Catholic form and by Joseph Butler in its Protestant form (but being in principle that offered by the very earliest of apologists), is based upon the assumption that man has some measure of autonomy, that the space-time world is in some measure ‘contingent’ and that man must create for himself his own epistemology in an ultimate sense.”89 In short, Van Til believed that “the traditional method” of apologetics put “God in the dock” to be judged by neutral man. The main problem, therefore, is that the traditional apologetic method assumes the “autonomy of reason.”90 It assumes that the sinner stands as the judge over the evidence for and against God and uses his reason to determine the truth. Van Til thinks that this is the way the traditional proofs for the existence of God have been presented. Does this mean that the traditional theistic proofs should never be used? No, but they are to be used in a presuppositional way. They should be used to “appeal to what the natural man, because he is a creature of God, actually does know to be true.”91

According to Van Til, the traditional method of apologetics was developed by Roman Catholics and Arminians, and, even though it was used by many Reformed theologians such as the Reformed scholastics and the Princetonians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, it includes numerous compromises with unbelieving thought that the Reformed Christian cannot tolerate. According to Van Til, the traditional method of apologetics compromises Christianity; the doctrine of God; the doctrine of God’s decree; the perspicuity, necessity, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture; the doctrine of the covenant; the doctrine of sin; and much more.92 The traditional method of apologetics must, therefore, be rejected.

A Friendly Critique of Van Til’s Thought

Upon reading this summary of Van Til’s thought, many readers might be thinking: “So what is all the fuss about? Why has Van Til’s thought been at the center of such intense debate for more than seventy years? Isn’t he simply trying to bring philosophy and apologetics in line with the Reformed theology we all believe to be true? Isn’t he merely calling Reformed Christians to reject any and all compromise with pagan thought?” It’s not difficult to see why people might think this way, because Van Til was, in fact, a confessionally Reformed theologian and a faithful churchman, and he did sincerely attempt to bring philosophy and apologetics in line with Reformed theology in a noncompromising way. These are commendable motives and goals. Van Til’s motives and goals, however, are not in question. The reason why there has been such intense debate over his ideas is because many theologians believe that in spite of his good intentions, Van Til’s system of thought manifests a number of serious flaws. The remainder of this article will deal with what I believe to be some of the most serious problems in Van Til’s thought. I will also address briefly a serious problem found among some of Van Til’s defenders.

Presupposing Scripture without Scripture

The first point that must be briefly addressed has to do with the role of biblical exegesis in Van Til’s system of thought. Van Til repeatedly affirms that all of his teaching presupposes the authority of Scripture and depends on the teaching of Scripture, yet one of the most striking features of Van Til’s writing is the almost complete lack of biblical exegesis in support of his numerous claims. There is, on occasion, a passing reference to Romans 1 and other texts, but for the most part, Van Til’s works are filled with assertions grounded in no other authority than Van Til himself. This is not sufficient when one is asserting that much of what Reformed theologians have been teaching for the previous five centuries has been in error.

Is there a good reason for this lack of scriptural exegesis? There are places in Van Til’s writings where he will say that particular books he has written are “merely student syllabi” and “not to be regarded as published books.”93 It could be argued, therefore, that Van Til, like other professors, depends on his colleagues in other classes to cover the material that he will assume in his own classes. However, once Van Til approved these syllabi for publication, they were removed from the context of a complete theological curriculum. Most readers of these published books (and they are published books, regardless of what Van Til claims) will not have the opportunity to study under Westminster Theological Seminary’s faculty. Van Til, therefore, owed it to his readers to provide the exegetical grounds for his claims before approving these syllabi for publication. No one is required to accept the truth of Van Til’s numerous claims solely on the basis of his authority.

A Fundamental Ambiguity

It is hardly controversial to say that Cornelius Van Til’s writing is often unclear. It is not that every sentence or paragraph is unclear, and it is not that his thinking on every topic is unclear. Van Til does make numerous unequivocal statements that are clear enough for readers to understand. There are, however, aspects of his writings that render the whole body of his work vague on numerous points. This is a problem, and because vagueness is an obstacle to good theology, it is a problem that must be addressed.

One factor that contributes to the lack of clarity in Van Til’s writing is what Mark Garcia referred to as Van Til’s “sometimes maddening revisionist use of vocabulary.”94 This problem is one that has been noted at least as far back as 1953 when The Calvin Forum published a series of articles critiquing Van Til’s apologetics. In an initial editorial introducing the articles, Cecil De Boer complained that Van Til “arbitrarily assigns new and unheard of meanings to certain technical terms in philosophy.”95 Probably the most well-known example of this is Van Til’s redefinition of the word analogical, a word that had an established history of usage in medieval and Reformed scholasticism. He also uses philosophical terms such as limiting concept and concrete universal in a way that differ from the way they were used by Kant, Hegel, and others. The problem with giving new definitions to technical terms with established definitions is that it inevitably causes confusion in the minds of readers who are familiar with those terms. It inevitably hinders clear communication, and there is no compelling reason to do it.96

Another contributing factor to the lack of clarity in Van Til’s writing is his continual use of idealist terms and concepts. This too has been observed by proponents and opponents alike for decades.97 As noted above, Van Til was educated against the background of philosophical idealism, and the language of this school of thought permeates his writings.98 It is important to note that Van Til did not formally adopt idealism as a system of thought and was instead highly critical of it in his writings, but he wanted to speak the language of the educated class of his day. To do this, he borrowed idealist terms and concepts and adapted them for his own purposes. The problem with this strategy is that idealism (whether German or British) is no longer the dominant philosophical school of thought in educated circles. As a result of the ever-changing tides in modern philosophy, Van Til’s writings became dated and therefore highly obscure.99 I will address some further issues involving idealist philosophy below.

The lack of clarity in Van Til’s thought is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in his claims about what, if anything, unbelievers know. This is significant because this point is one of the central elements of Van Til’s system of thought. As observed above, Van Til repeatedly makes unqualified statements to the effect that unbelievers know nothing truly. The unbeliever cannot even look at a tree and know that it is a tree. And yet, in other places, Van Til will say that unbelievers do have true knowledge of many things, including trees.100 As we observed above, Van Til does address the issue in terms of different points of view, but he also admitted that he could not provide a fully satisfactory solution to this theological problem.101 He simply made both kinds of assertions about the knowledge of unbelievers and claimed that truly Reformed Christians have to accept both. Even contemporary proponents of Van Tillian presuppositionalism have noted the problem. John Frame, for example, says that Van Til never completely solved the problem of how to relate the antithesis to common grace.102

Frame’s own proposed solution involves rejecting Van Til’s more extreme statements regarding the antithesis.103 There are at least two problems, however, with this suggestion. First, Van Til made those statements, and he did so frequently. Second, the antithesis is probably the most distinctive feature of Van Til’s thought. It is very difficult to excise the extreme antithetical statements about what unbelievers do not know without destroying Van Til’s system as a whole.104 To the extent that the unbeliever has knowledge of things in this world, Van Til’s justification for the rejection of traditional apologetics is severely weakened.105

The lack of clarity on the question of what unbelievers know can best be illustrated by asking what Van Til means when he uses the word true to modify the word knowledge or truly to modify the word know. Van Til says that it is impossible “for man to have true knowledge about anything apart from the Bible.”106 And again, “We hold it to be definitely anti-Christian to say that any man can have any true knowledge of anything except through the wisdom of Christ.”107 Again, “man cannot, unless the scales be removed from his eyes, know anything truly about God or anything else.”108 Again, “without the light of Scripture, no fact can be known truly.”109 Finally, “Not one single fact in this universe can be known truly by man without the existence of God.”110 There are many more statements to the same effect, but these examples should suffice to make the point. It seems abundantly clear that Van Til believes that the nonbeliever cannot have true knowledge. He says it repeatedly. Yet, Van Til also says regarding the nonbeliever, “I have never denied that he has true knowledge.”111 How can Van Til deny saying something that he says over and over again? Either Van Til’s teaching on “knowledge” is inherently self-contradictory or he is using the same terms to mean different things (i.e., equivocation). Neither option is theologically or logically attractive.

Van Til seems to think his meaning is clear. He claims that although the nonbeliever does not have true knowledge of anything, he actually does have true knowledge of all kinds of things “as far as it goes.”112 It is only when the nonbeliever is considered as working in a fully self-conscious way from his own principles that he knows nothing truly.113 So, according to Van Til, the unbeliever cannot know anything truly “in principle,” although he does know many thing truly (“as far as it goes”) as an actual matter of fact.114 Metaphysically and psychologically, then, the believer and the unbeliever have everything in common, including their proximate starting points.115 Considered epistemologically, from their ultimate starting points, however, they have nothing in common.116 In other words, it is the epistemological systems that are false.117

Van Til does, however, at times make statements that appear to contradict these general affirmations of confessional Trinitarian theism.

If this is a correct reading of Van Til, and if his point is that non-Christian epistemological systems are false, then it would be far clearer simply to say so, rather than repeatedly to assert that unbelievers have no true knowledge and then turn around and say that unbelievers do have true knowledge. This ambiguous use of the words true and knowledge renders one of the central features of Van Til’s system at best uncertain and at worst unintelligible.

The Doctrine of God

I noted above that Van Til, as a confessionally Reformed theologian, affirms the doctrine of God found in the Nicene Creed and the Westminster Confession. He generally affirms classical Trinitarian theism and makes it foundational to everything else he teaches. He does, however, at times make statements that appear to contradict these general affirmations of confessional Trinitarian theism. This is significant because as Van Til says, one’s doctrine of God affects everything else: “Every doctrine is bound to be false if the first and basic doctrine of God is false.”118 What, then, does Van Til say regarding God that is problematic?

First, on more than one occasion, Van Til states that God is one person and three persons.119 He says, “We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person.”120 Within the being of this one person there are “three personal subsistences.”121 God, therefore, is one person and three persons.122 Those familiar with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity will be aware that the orthodox formula is “three persons, of one substance” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.3). In Greek, it is one ousia and three hypostases. In Latin, it is one substantia and three personae (or subsistentia). This language was worked out in the fourth-century Trinitarian debates.123

The departure from the language of the orthodox creeds and the Reformed confessions and the introduction of this theological novelty is made worse when we examine Van Til’s definition of person. In one place, Van Til appears to define person in terms of consciousness, saying in connection with his discussion of God as one person and three persons that “God is a one-conscious being, and yet, he is also a tri-conscious being.”124 Why is this definition such a problem? Because Van Til also claims that in God, being and consciousness are coterminous.125 Van Til says, “It should be noted that it is only if we hold to the cotermineity of the being and the consciousness of God that we can avoid pantheism.”126 But if God is “a one-conscious being, and yet, he is also a tri-conscious being” and if consciousness is coterminous with being, then we potentially have a God who is not only “one person and three persons” but also “one being and three beings.”

Given the fact that Van Til tends to use language ambiguously, let us not automatically assume that he actually believes that God is one being and three beings. Instead, let us simply consider the formula “one person/three persons.” In the best-case scenario, the word person is being used here in two different senses. If that is the case, then Van Til’s formula is inherently confusing because of the equivocation required to maintain some semblance of orthodoxy. In the worst-case scenario, the word person is being used in the same sense in both halves of the formula. If this is the case, then the formula is self-contradictory, and one half or another of it (or both) will be heretical depending on the definition of person that is used in each half. It is going to result in some form of Unitarianism (e.g., modalism) or some form of tritheism (e.g., if person is defined as “being”) or a “quadrinity” entailing four persons (e.g., if person is defined as “being” and if God considered as one person is separated from God considered as three persons).

If we were to take seriously Van Til’s own definition of person in terms of consciousness and consciousness as coterminous with being, it would be almost impossible to maintain any best-case scenario. It is only because Van Til elsewhere affirms the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity found in the creeds and confessions that we are able to assume he doesn’t mean what he says here and is, in fact, orthodox. If we assume this about Van Til and read him in the most charitable light possible, we can conclude that he is an orthodox Trinitarian who was carried away here and foolishly introduced this formally heretical theological novelty into conservative Reformed churches.

The Reformed confessions to which Van Til subscribed at various points in his ministry maintain the Trinitarian language that was painstakingly formulated in the first centuries of the church. Article 8 of the Belgic Confession, for example, speaks of one God, “one single essence, in whom there are three persons.” Question and answer 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “these three distinct persons [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] are one, true, eternal God.” The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of God in terms of “three persons, of one substance” (2.3). The Reformed confessions maintain consistently the orthodox formula. Nowhere do we find them speaking of God as one person and three persons, and we should not find anyone who honestly subscribes to the Reformed confessions speaking of God in such a way.127

Van Til is not unaware of how significant the doctrine of the Trinity is for the Christian faith. He explicitly says that the triune God defined in the Nicene Creed and the Reformed confessions is the foundation for everything and that the existence of this God and this God alone is the presupposition for all predication.128 Yet by redefining the Trinity as “one person and three persons,” Van Til is at least implying that the teaching of the Reformed confessions is in error on a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. His “one person/three person” variation on the doctrine of the Trinity should not be casually accepted as if it were an inconsequential doctrinal refinement.129

A second example of problematic statements concerning God has to do with the divine attributes. As mentioned above, Van Til affirms the classical theism of the Westminster Confession. He affirms the doctrine of divine simplicity, going so far as to say that this doctrine answers the ancient philosophical problem of the one and the many.130 He also affirms aseity, eternality, immutability, and the rest of the incommunicable attributes. However, in some places, Van Til makes statements about immutability that are unclear in their meaning. He says in one place, for example: “Whether Adam was to obey or to disobey, the situation would be changed. And thus God’s attitude would be changed.”131 Does this mean that God changes? In the same context, Van Til indicates that God’s attitude changes but that “God in Himself is changeless.”132 But what exactly are “attitudes” in God, and how are they distinguished from “God in Himself”? Van Til’s answer to that question remains unclear.

Reading Van Til in the most charitable light possible, we can attempt to understand such unclear statements in light of his repeated clear assertions of commitment to Nicene Trinitarianism, Chalcedonian Christology, and the doctrinal formulations of the Reformed confessions. If we do this, we could chalk up the “one person/three person” formulation to Van Til’s penchant for equivocation and for giving words his own novel definitions, and we could chalk up his comments about immutability to a lack of theological clarity or to an unclear way of talking about the Bible’s anthropomorphic language.133 We could conclude on these assumptions, then, that Van Til is a classical theist in spite of these problematic statements.

Let us assume then that Van Til is in fact a classical theist. If this is the case, then serious questions are raised about some contemporary Van Tillians. We have to remind ourselves that for Van Til, the presupposition of the God described in the confessions—and only this God—is necessary for all predication. In other words, if Van Til is a classical theist, then according to him, the classical theist doctrine of God is at the heart of his presuppositionalism. What, then, would we have to conclude about contemporary Van Tillians who have rejected classical theism? If Van Til’s doctrine of God is the classical theist doctrine of God and if Van Til’s doctrine of God plays the role in his system that he says it plays, then we would have to conclude that those Van Tillians who have rejected classical theism have not only rejected the teaching of the Reformed confessions, but they have also betrayed the heart of Van Tillian presuppositionalism itself.134

A third and broader issue with Van Til’s doctrine of God has to do with the way that he contrasts the Reformed doctrine of God so absolutely with all that came before it. As we have seen, Van Til affirms the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon, but he also inadvertently undermines his professed commitment to them by drawing a hard line between the doctrine of God found in the early and medieval church and the doctrine of God found in the churches of the Reformation. Recall what Van Til says about the significance of the doctrine of God: “Every doctrine is bound to be false if the first and basic doctrine of God is false.”135 Is the Reformed doctrine of God, then, the same as the pre-Reformation doctrine of God?

According to Van Til, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have nothing in common on any point of doctrine.136 The Roman Catholic doctrine of God, which Van Til identifies as the early and medieval doctrine, differs from the Reformed doctrine because, according to Van Til, Rome sees God and creation on a scale of being. Rome, therefore, blurs the distinction between the being of God and the being of His creation.137 In short, Van Til is saying that the pre-Reformation doctrine of God is inherently pantheistic. Van Til connects the classical pre-Reformation doctrine of God with the philosophical position that he refers to as “classical realism.”138 According to Van Til, classical realism is incompatible with the true biblical doctrine of God, creation, and providence.139

Classical realism, therefore, must be rejected. But if the metaphysical framework that provided the context for the church’s development, formulation, and defense of the doctrine of God is rejected, then that doctrine of God itself becomes problematic. Does Van Til himself reject the doctrine of God as formulated by theologians in the classical realist tradition? No. He affirms the doctrine of God found in the Nicene Creed even though he repeatedly rejects classical realism.140 So, should truly Reformed Christians accept the Nicene Creed or not? Van Til himself affirmed it, but his rejection of classical realism as he understood it left the door open for those who followed him to make a different choice.

One issue that often causes Christians confusion when considering the premodern philosophical tradition is that Greek philosophical terms and concepts were regularly borrowed and used by Christians to explain certain elements of Christian theology.141 This borrowing, however, was not, as the German liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack argued, due to the Hellenization of Christian theology. It was due instead to the fact that the church understood that the human ability to know some truth about the world God created was not annihilated by the fall of mankind into sin. Van Til himself allows for such borrowing from philosophers.142 He himself granted that there can be “elements of truth” in non-Christian systems.143 He is, however, highly critical of borrowing when the philosophers in question are in what he calls the classical realist tradition.144

Does this mean that the early and medieval church accepted everything that philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle taught? No. The church critically appropriated what they believed to be true and rejected what they believed to be false. They looked for the “elements of truth” in Plato and Aristotle. The early and medieval church recognized that if a philosopher happened to discover something true about the nature of being or knowledge, it remained true regardless of who discovered it.

Why is all of this significant? Christian theologians, from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the early and medieval church to John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Francis Turretin in the Reformed church, carefully and critically used the philosophical concepts of the premodern philosophical tradition. There were obviously some differences between Augustine and Aquinas, but those differences did not destroy the fundamental areas of agreement and overlap that allowed for classical Trinitarian theism to be stated coherently and defended consistently throughout the first 1,500 years of church history. It is significant that the same general metaphysical and epistemological framework found in the writings of theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas continued to be used and taught by the men who wrote the Reformed confessions and the textbooks of Reformed scholastic theology. The Reformed theologians did not contrast their doctrine of God with what had been taught in the early and medieval church.

The generally accepted premodern philosophical framework first began to come under fire by a small minority of thinkers in the Middle Ages. With the broader spread of nominalism beginning in the fourteenth century, the rise of skepticism during the Renaissance, the rise of rationalism and empiricism during the Enlightenment, and then Kantianism and idealism in the following centuries, the older philosophical framework was eventually discarded.145 The rejection of this philosophical framework has had a dramatic impact on the doctrine of God.

When we examine the history of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theology, particularly regarding the doctrine of God, it becomes abundantly evident that when the older philosophical framework is abandoned, classical Trinitarian theism is not far behind. The rise of Unitarianism, deism, pantheism, and panentheism during and after the Enlightenment is not a coincidence. Theologians who adopted the metaphysics and epistemology of the rationalists reformulated their doctrine of God to fit that new philosophical framework. Theologians who adopted the philosophy of the empiricists reformulated their doctrine of God to fit that framework. Theologians who adopted the philosophy of Kant or Hegel or Whitehead reformulated their doctrines of God to fit those philosophical frameworks.146

This brings us back to Van Til. As we have seen, Van Til, in agreement with most post-Enlightenment philosophers, rejected the older philosophy (Van Til calls it “classical realism”). In short, he rejected the metaphysics and epistemology that provided the conceptual framework within which classical theism was developed, stated, and defended. Historically, what has happened when this context is rejected and replaced with a different philosophical context is that an internal tension is introduced, leading to different and novel doctrines of God. Van Til’s commitment to the Reformed confessions seems to have enabled him to live with the tension for the most part. The tension, however, remains for those who follow Van Til in the rejection of the older philosophy.

If history is any guide, Van Til’s rejection of the older philosophy will eventually result in the denial of classical theism by some who follow his lead. In fact, this seems to have already begun to occur. Some of his students have already begun to redefine and reject essential elements of classical biblical and Christian theism in order to bring their doctrine of God in line with Van Til’s metaphysical views.147 In other words, Van Til’s adoption of post-Enlightenment metaphysical views and his attempt to synthesize them with Christian theology created an unstable mixture of ideas that has already begun to undermine the orthodox Reformed theology he wanted to defend.

Poor Historical Theology

Another serious problem in Van Til’s thinking that must be addressed is his poor historical theology. The teaching of a number of historical figures is misrepresented throughout his works. This problem, too, has been observed for decades.148 Presumably, this misrepresentation was unintentional, but it remains a serious problem because so much of Van Til’s case for his new apologetic methodology rests upon these mistaken historical theological claims. It is also a problem because many of his misrepresentations continue to be taught by his students to this day.149 Van Til seems to be particularly responsible for continued misreadings of Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism (of both the medieval and Reformed variety).

Regarding Thomas Aquinas, Van Til makes a number of fundamental errors.150 For example, Van Til asserts throughout his writings that Aquinas denied the Creator-creature distinction and taught that God and His creation exist on a scale of being.151 According to Van Til, Aquinas taught that God and His creatures participate in the larger category of “being in general.”152 Thomas “reduces the Creator-creature distinction to something that is consistent with the idea of God and the cosmos as involved in a chain of being, with varying degrees of intensity.”153 He claims that Aquinas based his views on Aristotle’s idea of the “analogy of being.”154 All of this is a fundamental misreading of Aquinas. The irony of Van Til’s claim is that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is actually necessitated by Aquinas’ radical distinction between the Creator and the creature, the very thing that Van Til says Aquinas denies.155

Even a cursory reading of Aquinas reveals that there is probably nothing more foundational to his theology than the distinction between God and His creation. The idea is emphasized in his early work On Being and Essence, for example, where Aquinas explains that God’s existence “is distinct from every other existence.”156 In the later work On the Power of God, Aquinas again emphasizes this basic point, saying, “God’s being which is his essence is not universal being, but being distinct from all other being: so that by his very being God is distinct from every other being.”157 In the same work, he adds, “God’s relation to being is different from that of any creature’s: for he is his own being, which cannot be said of any creature.”158 In the Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas repeats the same idea, saying that God’s “being is distinct from all others.”159 According to Aquinas, God is distinct from all creatures in many ways. God alone is pure act, for example.160 He is the uncreated source of all created being, which He created ex nihilo (not ex Deo).161 The distinction between God and His creation is foundational to Aquinas’ discussion of the proofs for God’s existence as well as to his discussion of God’s attributes. It’s at the heart of his theology. Even some Van Tillians have noted that Van Til’s reading of Aquinas on this point is inaccurate.162

Van Til’s comments on scholasticism are likewise incorrect. In the first place, he speaks of scholasticism as if it were a monolithic school of thought or doctrine based on Aristotelianism. It is, he says, the old doctrine that says man can come to a knowledge of some things by the use of his reason but can come to the knowledge of other things only by means of revelation.163 Scholasticism is, thus, the epistemology of the Roman Catholic Church.164 It is a “monstrous synthesis of Aristotle and Christ.”165 True Christians, therefore, cannot continue to cling to it.166

Van Til’s view of scholasticism may have been influenced by the secondary literature available to him in the early and mid-twentieth century. The understanding of scholasticism found in those sources, however, has been subjected to intensive scrutiny in the last several decades and has been found wanting.167 Scholasticism is not a particular doctrine. It was a method designed for schools—thus the name “scholastic.” The term scholasticism “indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well.”168

Van Til’s misunderstanding of scholasticism in the Reformed tradition goes hand in hand with the old Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis, which has also been thoroughly debunked.169 That Van Til holds something akin to the Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis seems evident in his almost exclusive reliance on Calvin as the representative of a pure early Reformed theology as well as in his statements to the effect that theologians of the next generation retained too much of the older medieval philosophy.170 His adherence to the Calvin vs. the Calvinists thesis leads him to reject the Reformed scholastics on those occasions when he does not completely ignore them.

Van Til also sometimes fails to present accurately the teachings of Calvin himself on doctrines that are central to his argument. Most significantly, Van Til misrepresents Calvin on the important point of what unbelievers know.

Although Van Til considers Calvin to represent Reformed theology in its purity, he also sometimes fails to present accurately the teachings of Calvin himself on doctrines that are central to his argument. Most significantly, Van Til misrepresents Calvin on the important point of what unbelievers know. Calvin discusses this issue at length in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.2.12–21). In the Institutes, Calvin distinguishes between knowledge of earthly things and knowledge of heavenly things. After discussing the effects of the fall, Calvin explains that fallen man has true, albeit clouded, knowledge of earthly things. Calvin then moves to a discussion of what fallen man can know about heavenly things. Here the answer is different.

We must now explain what the power of human reason is, in regard to the kingdom of God, and spiritual discernments which consists chiefly of three things—the knowledge of God, the knowledge of his paternal favour towards us, which constitutes our salvation, and the method of regulating of our conduct in accordance with the Divine Law. With regard to the former two, but more properly the second, men otherwise the most ingenious are blinder than moles.171

According to Calvin, then, fallen man can have true knowledge of earthly things, but in regard to certain heavenly things, fallen men are “blinder than moles.” Van Til surely has this passage in mind when he writes the following:

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 clarity at all times that the natural man is as blind as a mole with respect to natural things as well as with respect to spiritual things.172

Calvin says fallen man can know earthly things but is as blind as a mole regarding certain heavenly or spiritual things. Van Til, on the other hand, says that fallen man is as blind as a mole regarding both earthly and spiritual things.

It is clear that Van Til is expressing an important difference between himself and Calvin here by his use of the same unusual metaphor. What is less clear is whether Van Til thinks his own view is the same as Calvin’s and that Calvin merely failed to present his view adequately, or whether Van Til believes that Calvin’s view is actually incorrect. Van Til says that what Calvin actually believes is that the natural man does not truly know the physical world.173 In this case, Van Til’s view (at least in one of the ways it is expressed) would be in line with Calvin. This, however, is precisely the opposite of what Calvin explicitly teaches in this section of the Institutes.174 Calvin cannot be saying that non-Christians know nothing when he explicitly says that non-Christians know something and that Christians can learn much from non-Christians about earthly things.175

Van Til’s comments on Calvin’s view are extremely vague and confusing. Calvin says that the natural man does truly know the world (earthly things). According to Van Til, Calvin says that that the natural man does not truly know the world. In other words, Van Til presents Calvin as teaching the opposite of what Calvin explicitly says. The reason why Van Til misinterprets Calvin in this way is unknown. Perhaps Van Til’s reading of Calvin is hampered by his own “colored glasses.” Making all of this even more confusing is the fact that what Van Til says Calvin really means is also the opposite of what Van Til himself says when he himself grants that natural men do have knowledge of earthly things.176 Van Til says that nonbelievers can interpret the natural world “and bring to light much truth.”177 Unbelievers can “do this and discover that, which for the matter of it, is true and usable for the Christian.”178 So, does Van Til actually agree with what Calvin says rather than what Van Til says Calvin says? It depends entirely on how and to what extent we qualify the ambiguous antithesis element in Van Til’s thought.

All of this is another example of how Van Til’s vague language muddies the waters on important theological issues. Van Til’s discussion of Calvin reveals that his view regarding the knowledge that unbelievers (do not) have, if understood in the strong sense in which he presents it here, differs not only from the Calvinist theologians who allegedly fell back into “scholasticism,” but also substantially from that of Calvin himself. Van Til’s teaching on this point has no continuity with anything in the Reformed tradition.179

Van Til’s discussions of Aquinas, scholasticism, Calvin, and others manifests a consistent inability to represent the views of others clearly or accurately. I cannot speculate on the cause or causes of this inability. I presume that the misrepresentations were unintentional. Considering the fact that many of Van Til’s students inadvertently repeat the mistakes of their teacher on these subjects, perhaps Van Til is repeating the mistakes of one or more of his teachers. Regardless of why Van Til consistently misrepresents the views of others, the result is the same. It leaves the reader suspicious of what Van Til says about anyone he mentions. It leaves the reader wondering whether Van Til has understood or presented any theologian’s views accurately.

A Monstrous Synthesis of Idealism and Christ?

We have already observed the noncontroversial fact that Van Til uses terms and concepts borrowed from idealist philosophy. As we have seen, this is one of Van Til’s practices that render his writing quite ambiguous at times. However, the more significant question is whether Van Til allowed Kantian and idealist philosophy to influence his thought at a deeper level. Did elements of Kantian and idealist thought seep into his thinking? Some of the earliest critiques of Van Til, including those by J. Oliver Buswell, Cecil De Boer, and Jesse De Boer, argued that Van Til’s epistemology borrows from idealism.180 The criticism has been repeated up to the present day.181 Significantly, the claim is found not only among critics of Van Til. At least one contemporary Van Tillian explicitly argues for a strong idealist influence on Van Til’s thought.182

Van Til wrote critically of both Kantianism and idealism and published an entire book dedicated to responding to those critics who had accused him of promoting idealist philosophy.183 He consistently critiques idealism as a false system of thought. The only charitable way of reading what Van Til has written in these explicit statements is to conclude that Van Til had no intention of being either a systematic Kantian or idealist. On the other hand, a charitable reading of his critics and the Van Tillians who agree with them on this point would lead us to conclude that there is something in Van Til’s thought that has at least the appearance of idealism. We are forced, therefore, to consider whether there are things in Van Til’s writing that would lead critics to conclude that Van Til had been influenced by idealist or Kantian thought.

As we have already noted, Van Til regularly uses idealist terminology. What are some of the terms and concepts that Van Til uses that can be traced back to idealist sources? As Timothy McConnel observes, the most obvious Kantian influence is found in Van Til’s adaptation of the transcendental argument.184 He explains, “Kant had sought in the first critique to find what conditions must be presupposed in order for us to have experience and knowledge of that experience.”185 To a certain extent, Van Til borrows the transcendental type of argument from Kant and adapts it to Christian ends. According to Van Til, “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.”186 Is Van Til’s use of the transcendental argument sufficient by itself to prove systematic Kantian influence on the content of Van Til’s thought? No, but there are more things for us to consider beyond his use of the transcendental argument.

Van Til also borrowed the idea of the limiting concept (Grenzbegriff), a term used by Kant. In Kant’s philosophy, this term is related to the limits of human knowledge. Human beings can have knowledge of the phenomenal alone, not the noumenal.187 Van Til confusingly refers to the limiting concept as a “Christian notion,” as if it has a long history of use in the church.188 He uses the term frequently, but since he doesn’t use the term in a precisely Kantian sense, this seems to be more an example of his attempt to use the language of his philosophical contemporaries than an example of Kantian thought. Of course, because he is not using it in a Kantian sense, neither his Christian readers nor his philosophical contemporaries are able to understand him easily.

Van Til’s identification of God as “our concrete universal” is another example of his use of idealist concepts, and a more problematic one.189 In Hegel’s philosophy, the concrete universal is “the universal that ‘contains’ or comprises its particular instances.”190 This concept is a key element in Hegel’s thought used by him to explain universals and particulars.191 Van Til borrows the concept, claiming that only God explains the relation of universals to particulars. Although Van Til’s definition of God as “our concrete universal” by itself does not prove that he is a Hegelian, it raises questions. If Van Til uses the concept in the same sense as Hegel and applies it to God, it appears impossible to avoid some form of pantheism or panentheism. On the other hand, if he is not using it in the same sense as Hegel, why use it at all? Critics of Van Til have pointed out more idealist terms and concepts borrowed by Van Til (e.g., God as the Absolute). It is not necessary to examine each in detail. These examples should be sufficient to understand why readers of Van Til have often wondered about idealist influences.

Although the mere use of terms does not prove that Van Til has adopted significant elements of the systems of Kantianism or idealism, there is an important aspect of his thought that, if interpreted in one way, does require more careful consideration. When Van Til speaks in a more unqualified manner about the knowledge of unbelievers in terms of the antithesis, significant similarities with Kantian and post-Kantian thought become more evident. According to Van Til’s stronger unqualified statements, the unbeliever never has true knowledge of the external world as it really is. His “colored glasses” shape the form and content of his knowledge. In other words, Van Til’s doctrine of the antithesis at times causes him to speak of the knowledge of unbelievers in a way that is very similar to Kantian and post-Kantian thought.192 Because Van Til sometimes qualifies these statements and grants that unbelievers have true knowledge of the external world, these similarities with post-Kantian thought are not sufficient to demonstrate that Van Til has adopted the systems of either Kantianism or idealism. They do indicate, however, that the stronger unqualified version of the doctrine of the antithesis is philosophically problematic.

The doctrine of the antithesis forces us to look at one additional issue, and that is the question of indirect Kantian and idealist influences. Van Til repeatedly notes the influence of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd on his thinking.193 The influence of Kuyper is most evident in Van Til’s teaching on the antithesis, and the influence of Dooyeweerd is most evident in Van Til’s structuring of the history of philosophy and in his use of a transcendental argument.194 However, what is significant is that both Kuyper and Dooyeweerd are known to be heavily influenced by Kant and by idealism. James Bratt, for example, notes that Kuyper combined “Reformed Christian and German Idealist sources.”195 Bratt observes “how deep and permanent was the impact of German Idealism on his thinking.”196 Dooyeweerd’s thought as well was heavily influenced by Kantianism.197 If there are traces of Kantianism and idealism in Van Til’s thought, and if they are related to the doctrine of the antithesis, they may to some extent have been mediated through Kuyper and Dooyeweerd.

In conclusion, although Van Til himself did not adopt either Kantianism or idealism as a full-fledged system of thought, it is difficult to deny some idealist influence on his thought. In fact, some of what Van Til says could be interpreted as indicating a strong idealist influence. If this is the case, it would not be surprising. Van Til was so immersed in this philosophical context from his college years onward that, at the very least, he seems to have allowed post-Enlightenment philosophy to dictate his apologetic agenda. The result of allowing the idealism of his educated contemporaries to dictate his agenda (and much of his philosophical language) has been extensive confusion and disagreement on the part of his readers. The result of allowing any “cultured despisers” to dictate a theological agenda has the potential, however, to be much worse.198

Presupposing Reason

When we turn to Van Til’s thought on the nature and use of human reason, the lack of clarity mentioned above with regard to what unbelievers can and do know comes home with a vengeance. One of Van Til’s most fundamental criticisms of traditional apologetics is that it unintentionally makes the mind of man ultimate.199 This could mean one of at least two things. It could mean that the human mind is understood to be in the place of God over all things, that man is “metaphysically ultimate,” that man is “the final court of appeal.”200 Or, it could mean that the human mind is understood to be our necessary “proximate” starting point as human beings.

When Van Til criticizes traditional apologetics, he seems to have the first meaning in mind. He appears to be criticizing traditional apologetics for making the mind of man ultimate. The problem with this criticism is that it conflates pre-Enlightenment concepts of human reason with post-Enlightenment concepts of human reason and lumps them together under the banner of “traditional apologetics.” No traditional Christian apologist, whether Aquinas or the Reformed scholastics, affirms the blasphemous idea that the mind of man is ultimate in the sense of being metaphysically ultimate. All Christians understand that God is the Creator and that neither they themselves, nor the world, nor their own mind and knowledge would exist apart from God. No true Christian believes that man is the metaphysically ultimate, final court of appeal. Van Til is essentially criticizing traditional apologists for holding a view that they do not believe or teach.201 It appears that Van Til has noticed something that is an actual problem in some post-Enlightenment forms of thought, but then he reads that problem back into earlier forms of Christian apologetics where it did not exist.

What if Van Til isn’t criticizing traditional apologists for believing that the mind of man is ultimate in this metaphysical sense? What if Van Til is talking about what he calls the proximate starting point? This is highly unlikely, because Van Til himself grants that such is the human condition as created by God. Van Til grants that we human beings are necessarily the proximate starting point of all human knowledge.202 Psychologically, Van Til argues, man must “think of himself first before he can think of God.”203 What is the point? The point is that advocates of traditional apologetic methods agree.204 This is the point that traditional apologists are making when they speak of starting with our reason. They are not asserting that the mind of man is the ultimate final court of appeal, somehow higher than God. Van Til is criticizing traditional apologetics for something he ends up, in a roundabout way, granting. He has fabricated a problem that did not exist and has devised an entire apologetic methodology to solve this nonexistent problem.

Consider Van Til’s statement that man must “think of himself first before he can think of God.” Van Til is saying that this is the necessary proximate starting point for humans. Consider what it means to “think” of anything. In order to “think” of oneself or God or anything else, our rational faculties have to be assumed. To put it another way, they have to be presupposed. We cannot “think” without our “thinking faculties.” We cannot do anything that requires our rational faculties unless we have those rational faculties. They are assumed (or presupposed) in every act of the mind that we are called to do. What is presupposed in the call to presuppose God? What is presupposed in the call to go to Scripture as our final court of appeal?

The call to presuppose God and the call to presuppose Scripture both presuppose a “presupposer” with the ability and rational tools needed to presuppose something. In other words, both of Van Til’s calls presuppose the human being and his rational faculties as well as the laws of reason. That is what is presupposed in the very notion of “presupposing.” Does this mean that man, his rational faculties, or the laws of reason are metaphysically ultimate? No. None of them would even exist without God. God is metaphysically ultimate. It simply means that the human act of presupposing cannot occur without them. In other words, everything that Van Til says the believer or unbeliever must do presupposes reason. Van Til has not escaped this fact by creating presuppositional apologetics.

Consider that Van Til says that the presuppositional method involves the Christian putting himself in the shoes of the unbeliever “for argument’s sake” and then asking the unbeliever to put himself in the shoes of the Christian “for argument’s sake” in order to show that only one of those views make facts intelligible.205 Supposedly, this method of apologetics presupposes God as opposed to presupposing human reason. This method, however, does in fact presuppose the unbeliever’s human reason and its ability to discern which of the two opposing views explains intelligibility.

Van Til, of course, does not deny that the unbeliever has the ability to understand the apologist’s arguments, and his method assumes the unbeliever’s ability to judge between two views (the Christian and the non-Christian) as well as his ability to determine which view explains intelligibility itself. He says as much himself.206 But when these same kinds of statements are made by traditional apologists, Van Til explains them as examples of autonomous human reason. Van Til acknowledges that in terms of the human intellectual faculty and its processes, reason has to be assumed in every appeal to the unbeliever’s mind, but granting this obvious point, as Van Til does, undermines his strong claims regarding the antithesis and thus undermines his entire presuppositional system and his arguments against traditional apologetics.

Rejection of Reformed Natural Theology

Many of the points that we have addressed so far in this critique are relevant to Van Til’s treatment of natural theology.207 According to Van Til, natural theology was a development that grew out of Rome’s synthesis of Christian thought with Greek thought and must be rejected.208 Calvin, he argues, rejected it and so should all Reformed Christians.209 Before we examine Van Til’s claims, we need to establish a basic definition of natural theology. Natural theology, as traditionally understood by Reformed theologians, is “the knowledge of God that is available to reason through the revelation of God in the natural order.”210 In other words, it deals with what man can know about God from an examination of God’s creation, through which God reveals Himself. In Reformed theology, this doctrine has been based on an exegesis of Romans 1.

Van Til’s usual definition of natural theology is not entirely different from the traditional definition (although he tends to conflate natural theology and natural revelation as if the two were synonymous), but he often expresses his view in light of his doctrine of antithesis, saying, for example, that if we interpret any element of life apart from God, we have a natural theology.211 That is a rather vague (and inaccurate) definition, but it reveals that Van Til’s major concern with natural theology, as he understands it, is that it “starts with man as autonomous and with the world as ‘given.’ Natural theologians assume that ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ and ‘fact’ are ‘religiously neutral.’”212 Those traditional natural theologians who attempt to prove the existence of God from nature, therefore, compromise “God himself by maintaining that his existence is only ‘possible’ albeit ‘highly probable,’ rather than ontologically and ‘rationally necessary.”213

This is why, according to Van Til, the traditional theistic proofs are invalid. “If they were valid, Christianity would not be true.”214 Calvin, therefore, had the good sense to destroy the traditional theistic proofs.215 This does not mean that Christians cannot use the theistic proofs. They simply have to be reformulated along presuppositionalist lines. They should “appeal to what the natural man, because he is a creature of God, actually does know to be true.”216 Putting it another way, “to be constructed rightly, theistic proof ought to presuppose the ontological Trinity.”217

Van Til’s understanding of natural theology is closely tied to what he says about the unbeliever’s knowledge or lack thereof. If man cannot know anything truly about the created order, then a knowledge of God that begins with an examination of the created order will obviously not be possible. Van Til explicitly ties these two ideas together, saying that since fallen man cannot truly know anything, natural theology is impossible.218 However, we have already seen that Van Til’s statements about what fallen man can know are not clear. The result is that his critique of traditional natural theology is also unclear and shaky. If man can know many things about the created world, as Van Til asserts in a number of places, then traditional natural theology and traditional methods of apologetics are also possible.

A final problem with Van Til’s rejection of traditional natural theology is that it betrays his goal to develop an apologetic that is consistent with Reformed theology.

A significant problem with Van Til’s case against traditional natural theology is his conflating of all non–Van Tillian ideas of natural theology into a single whole defined by an appeal to autonomous human reason. This is a gross oversimplification of the history and development of various forms of natural theology. Natural theology is notoriously difficult to define because of the various versions of it that are found throughout history.219 The most significant developments occurred after the scientific revolution and the Cartesian “revolution.” God was effectively removed from consideration of His creation, and nature began to be conceived of in largely mechanistic terms. The result is that the “natural theology” of the medieval era and early modern era has very little in common with post-Enlightenment “natural theologies.”220 What Van Til criticizes about natural theology is largely true in terms of post-Enlightenment thinkers. It does not, however, accurately describe what we find in all medieval and early Reformed natural theology.221

A final problem with Van Til’s rejection of traditional natural theology is that it betrays his goal to develop an apologetic that is consistent with Reformed theology. Traditional Reformed theology generally endorsed natural theology. If one’s goal is to develop a Reformed apologetic consistent with Reformed theology, it defeats the purpose to reject that which Reformed theology affirms. Van Til tends to equate “Reformed Theology” with Calvin, but although Calvin does not speak directly to the problem of “natural theology,” even he does not deny that it is possible, as Van Til would have his readers believe.222 Calvin argues that all men have a knowledge of God, a sense of the divine implanted in their minds by God.223 Furthermore, all of creation reveals God to mankind.224 Of course, Calvin adds that this natural knowledge of God is not salvific.225 Thus far, Van Til would likely agree.

The difference between Calvin’s doctrine and Van Til’s doctrine becomes evident when we observe what Calvin says in his commentaries regarding the Apostles’ witness to pagans. In his commentary on Acts 14:17, for example, Calvin says that Paul and Barnabas demonstrated that “God was showed by natural arguments [evidences].”226 Commenting on Acts 17:22, Calvin says that Paul “showeth by natural arguments who and what God is.”227 Calvin is claiming that the Apostles used a natural theology in their apologetics. A final example may be seen in Calvin’s comments on Acts 17:24. Calvin says that “Paul’s drift is to teach what God is. Furthermore, because he hath to deal with profane men, he draweth proofs from nature itself; for in vain should he have cited testimonies of Scripture.”228 It would be vain for Paul to cite testimonies of Scripture to men who did not accept the authority of Scripture. Thus Paul, according to Calvin, draws proof from a common ground, from the created world on which we both stand. He used natural theology.

The post-Reformation Reformed scholastic theologians also taught a natural theology. It must be emphasized that they did not believe that pagans could come to an orthodox knowledge of the triune God by the use of their fallen reason. The concept of God that pagans come up with based on the use of their fallen reason is termed “false theology” by Reformed scholastics such as Franciscus Junius.229 It is the source of all the pagan deities that are found in the false religions of the world.

The Reformed scholastics, however, did not reject natural theology. Francis Turretin, for example, addresses the issue of natural theology in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1679–85). Natural theology, he argues, is both innate and acquired.230 It is disordered in man because of the effects of the fall.231 It is not perfect, and it is not saving knowledge of God.232 Turretin explains that it is the Socinians who deny natural theology.233 He says, “The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).”234

On the knowledge of God, Turretin adds, “It is not repugnant that one and the same thing in a different relation should both be known by the light of nature and believed by the light of faith; as what is gathered from the one only obscurely, may be held more certainly from the other. Thus we know that God is, both from nature and from faith (Heb. 11:6); from the former obscurely, but from the latter more surely. The special knowledge of true faith (by which believers please God and have access to him, of which Paul speaks) does not exclude, but supposes the general knowledge from nature.”235 In other words, Turretin believed that there were “mixed articles.”

Petrus van Mastricht addresses the question of natural theology in the prolegomena to his Theoretical-Practical Theology (1698–99). He observes that for the “Christian, revealed theology does not exclude natural theology.”236 Significantly, natural theology is used not only to leave the unbeliever without excuse, it is also used apologetically to refute pagans and atheists.237 Natural theology also confirms revealed theology when we discover the agreement between the two.238 In agreement with Junius and Turretin, Mastricht is clear that natural theology, which is true, has to be distinguished from pagan theology, which is false.239 Turretin and Mastricht are merely two representatives of the broader stream of classical Reformed orthodoxy on the idea of natural theology. When the classical Reformed doctrine is examined, it is evident that Van Til’s portrayal of it is inaccurate and his rejection of it places him outside of the classic Reformed theological tradition.240

The Cult of Personality

A final point that must be addressed does not concern Van Til directly. It concerns some (although certainly not all or even most) of his followers. In my experience with this issue over the last quarter-century, I’ve often run into a certain strand of Van Tillians whose attitude toward Van Til is, in my opinion, on the verge of the kind of unquestioning adulation reserved for the leaders of cults. I’m dealing here with anecdotal evidence based on my own individual experience, but I do not believe my experience is unusual. As I mentioned in the introduction, even some Van Tillians have acknowledged this phenomenon. John Frame, for example, has acknowledged it and should be commended for his criticism of it.241

Let me be clear that I am not referring to scholars who believe Van Til offered helpful insights into theology and/or apologetics and who wish to build on and develop his work. Neither am I referring to those who wish to correct what they believe to be misinterpretations of Van Til. I’m referring to those who treat Van Til as if he is practically infallible and beyond all criticism. There is a cult of personality around Van Til that is unlike anything I’ve seen with any other figure in the history of Reformed theology. Charles Hodge is not treated this way. J. Gresham Machen is not treated this way. Not even John Calvin is treated this way. No one else I know of is treated this way. For some, Van Til is practically untouchable, but they are willing to criticize anyone else’s teaching. Van Til is treated by some almost as if his works are inspired and as if any criticism of him is equivalent to criticizing Scripture.

I have no reason to believe that Van Til is responsible for this phenomenon, but regardless of its source, it is something that should be warned against. It’s theologically dangerous when people feel obliged to get indignant about any criticism of anything Van Til said no matter how contrary to the Bible and our Reformed confessions it is (e.g., God is one person and three persons). Frankly, it is idolatrous to treat any human being in this way. For the vast majority of Van Tillians who do not treat Van Til in this way, this criticism obviously does not apply. All I would hope is that if and when they witness it in fellow Van Tillians they would discourage it.

Conclusion

Cornelius Van Til was, by all accounts, a godly Christian churchman, and all of us can be thankful for this and seek to follow him in that respect. To the best of our knowledge, he was and is a brother in Christ with whom all of us who are true believers will spend eternity worshiping our Lord, and his call to an uncompromising faith in Christ is something we should all proclaim. The vast majority of those who consider themselves followers of Van Til are also godly and humble Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ. That said, what should our response be to Van Til if the criticisms I have outlined are accurate?

This is a question each Christian must answer for himself. Many Van Tillians strongly believe that there is uniquely helpful insight in the works of Van Til. They may argue that even if some or all of the criticisms I have outlined are accurate, Van Til’s thought is worth carrying forward. If there are problems with his thought, they can be corrected or clarified without destroying the heart of his system of thought. I respect those Christian brothers who come to this conclusion, but I cannot agree with them. Because of the issues I outlined above, it is impossible to commend Van Tillian presuppositionalism as a consistently Reformed system of apologetics, philosophy, or theology.

In the first place, Van Til’s thought, from beginning to end, is simply too ambiguous, vague, and muddled. Van Tillians have spent decades trying to explain what he “really” meant and to build on his thought, but the vagueness of his intended meaning renders doubtful any edifice built on his foundation. Vagueness, unclarity, and ambiguity do not provide a solid foundation for any theological endeavor. It is questionable, therefore, whether continued attempts to build on the unclear thought of Van Til will ever be of any real lasting benefit to the church. It is more likely that the inherent ambiguity of his system of thought will continue to bear the kind of fruit we have already witnessed over the last seventy years.242

Consider again that the issue of the unbeliever’s knowledge is one of the key tenets of Van Til’s system of thought. Yet, despite its foundational nature, it is one of the most unclear elements in his entire corpus. It can be and has been interpreted in more than one way, and depending on how it is interpreted, it is either absurd, unbiblical, and self-defeating (if it is said without qualification that the unbeliever can know absolutely nothing truly), or else it is completely trivial (if it is claimed that the unbeliever does know some things truly). Many Van Tillians, especially those to whom the antithesis appeals, opt for the first interpretation, resulting in a view that makes any apologetic endeavor, presuppositional or otherwise, impossible. Van Til himself apparently opts for the latter, but if this is his actual view, it undermines his own emphasis on the antithesis and effectively renders his case against traditional Reformed apologetics null and void.

Van Til’s attempts at theological reformulation are likewise reasons his work cannot continue to be commended. His reformulation of the Trinity, for example, as “one person and three persons” is frankly irresponsible and has led many of his students and defenders to write and speak as if it is perfectly acceptable to play fast and loose with theological language. This, too, is something that seriously harms the church. As central as Van Til himself affirmed a correct doctrine of the Trinity to be, there is no excuse for his ambiguous formula. There is even less excuse for the fact that some of his followers continue to defend it and allow it to fester and spread among the sheep who have been entrusted to them. Regarding the divine attributes, Van Til’s teaching regarding immutability is unclear, and this lack of clarity is bearing bitter fruit to this day among students of his who are redefining and rejecting classical theism and moving ever closer to a synthesis of Reformed theology and some version of process theology.

Van Til’s consistent inability to represent accurately the teaching of others throughout church history is another significant reason why his work cannot be commended to the church. Much of what he says regarding the teaching of others is flatly incorrect, and almost all of what he says is based on mere assertion. There are usually no footnotes citing where an idea that Van Til attributes to a particular theologian or philosopher is found. When the writings of these theologians and philosophers are examined, however, it is often discovered that what they actually teach is quite different from what Van Til says they teach. This makes it impossible to trust his statements about any theologians or philosophers.

Van Til’s narrative of the history of theology has also been proven to be inaccurate. For the last several decades, Reformed theologians have been at the forefront of efforts to understand the history of the Reformation in its context. Their study of the medieval theologians, Reformation theologians, and early post-Reformation theologians has revealed that the narrative that Van Til taught, and that some of his students inexplicably continue to teach, does not correspond to the historical evidence. His account of late-medieval theology, scholasticism, the theology of Aquinas, the theology of Calvin, and the theology of the Reformed scholastics, among others, have all turned out to be inaccurate and misleading to one degree or another. What is becoming more and more clear every day is that Van Til’s teaching, rather than being a return to the theology of the Reformation, is actually an aberration that bears little to no resemblance to classical Reformed thought.

This is largely due to Van Til’s modernist philosophical assumptions. Van Til’s philosophical thought is a strange combination of internally inconsistent principles that undermines classical Reformed theology and Christian orthodoxy. His own followers do not seem to be able to determine whether and to what degree his thought reflects philosophical idealism. Whatever his actual philosophical positions were, his choice to fall in line with the majority of post-Enlightenment philosophy by rejecting the older “realist” philosophical tradition was a mistake that will continue to negatively affect the way those who follow him formulate the doctrine of God.

When we find a theologian who is characterized by consistently ambiguous language, a lack of any real exegetical support for any of his most important claims, a consistent inability to represent accurately anyone else’s teaching, a lax approach to the language of the confessions to which he professes to subscribe, and a philosophy that attempts to synthesize mutually contradictory principles, we have found someone who is a perfect example of how not to do theology. When such a theologian is considered by many to be the most profound and important theologian in modern Reformed history (if not all of Reformed history), it reveals the existence of a significant problem in the church.

In light of all of these problems with Van Til’s thought, it is clear that when twentieth-century Reformed Christians followed Van Til and adopted his presuppositionalism in place of the traditional apologetics and theology of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed scholastic theologians, they let go of an invaluable and precious birthright. What replaced that birthright has been uniquely detrimental to the contemporary Reformed church. A careful examination of Van Til’s writing and a comparison of it with the classical Reformed theologians reveals that everything Van Til said that was true has been said much more clearly and carefully by other theologians. Enough of what he said was false, however, that continued unqualified recommendation of his writings to young and impressionable Christians is certainly not advisable.

In spite of apparently sincere motives and his attempts to respond to real problems in nineteenth-century philosophy and theology, Van Til also imagined problems where none existed—particularly when he read nineteenth-century ideas back into the thirteenth century or into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The traditional Reformed theology and apologetics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when read with even a bit of charity, did not do what Van Til claimed they did. If we would take the time to go back and carefully reread the Reformed scholastics, we would discover that it is they, and not Van Til, who provide us with an approach to theology and a foundation for apologetical work that is biblical, clear, precise, and internally self-consistent.

 

  1. These are dealt with most thoroughly by him in R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1984), 183–338. ↩︎
  2. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 23–24. I will be referencing Van Til’s works by title and page number only. Almost all of his works are published by P&R Publishing Company. ↩︎
  3. Mark A. Garcia, preface to In Defense of the Eschaton: Essays in Reformed Apologetics, by William Dennison, ed. James Douglas Baird (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2015), xv. ↩︎
  4. Garcia, preface to In Defense of the Eschaton, xv. ↩︎
  5. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 43. See also footnote 2 on page 43. ↩︎
  6. John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1995), 5. ↩︎
  7. At Third Millennium ministries, for example, Richard Pratt has published a two-part article titled “Common Misunderstandings of Van Til’s Apologetic” here and here. ↩︎
  8. There are nuanced differences, for example, between the views of John Frame, Greg Bahnsen, and K. Scott Oliphint. Compare Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetics: Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1998), and K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2013). John Muether notes that Van Til’s followers have “created competing versions of the Reformed apologist.” See Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2008), 15. ↩︎
  9. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 100, 143, 159; Survey of Christian Epistemology, 67; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 100, 306–8. ↩︎
  10. See Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 10–11; Bahnsen, Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended (Powder Springs, Ga.: American Vision, 2008), 4. Bahnsen elsewhere argues that views other than Van Tillian presuppositionalism are immoral attempts to remain neutral (Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith [Atlanta: American Vision, 1996], 7–90). ↩︎
  11. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 47. Frame helpfully explains that this is because Van Til was not merely a thinker but also a “movement leader,” and criticism of “movement leaders is not well-received by those in the movement” (pp. 8–14). ↩︎
  12. I would encourage all who are involved in the debate over Van Til’s teaching to take the time to read John Newton’s “Letter on Controversy” available online here. ↩︎
  13. Based on the contents listed in the CD-ROM version of The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895–1987, ed. Eric Sigward. ↩︎
  14. For an exceptional biography, see John Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2008). ↩︎
  15. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 23. As we will see, Van Til was particularly influenced by the Dutch Reformed tradition. Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyeweerd were significant influences on his theology, philosophy, and apologetics. ↩︎
  16. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 43. ↩︎
  17. See B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R), 1:389. ↩︎
  18. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 86, 124; The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 28–29, 43. ↩︎
  19. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 92, 94, 100. ↩︎
  20. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 265–66; The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 30–31. ↩︎
  21. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 25; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 323, 341. ↩︎
  22. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 28; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 272. ↩︎
  23. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 327–33. ↩︎
  24. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 24; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 333. ↩︎
  25. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 335. ↩︎
  26. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 357. ↩︎
  27. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 47. ↩︎
  28. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 12. ↩︎
  29. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 363. ↩︎
  30. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 59. One can readily see that Van Til shares the concern with epistemology that became the dominant philosophical issue following the work of Descartes. ↩︎
  31. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 50. ↩︎
  32. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 97. ↩︎
  33. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 39. ↩︎
  34. See Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 27. ↩︎
  35. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 237; Christian Apologetics, 30. ↩︎
  36. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 43. ↩︎
  37. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 60. ↩︎
  38. Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 91; see also Christian Apologetics, 31; Survey of Christian Epistemology, 60; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 200. ↩︎
  39. Van Til even uses the Reformed scholastic distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology. See Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 324. ↩︎
  40. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 61. ↩︎
  41. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 1. ↩︎
  42. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 3. This comment by Van Til raises an important question. Does Van Til believe that our knowledge is knowledge of things themselves, or is it knowledge of ideas? The question is significant, because if our knowledge is knowledge only of the ideas of things, how do we ever know whether our ideas correspond to the things themselves (knowledge of which we do not have if our knowledge is only of our ideas)? ↩︎
  43. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 31. It is important to observe that Van Til does not use the word analogical in the same way it was used by medieval and Reformed scholastics. ↩︎
  44. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 48. ↩︎
  45. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 18. ↩︎
  46. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 59. ↩︎
  47. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 133, 147. This element of Van Til’s thought seems to be overlooked quite often, not only by critics, but also by some proponents. ↩︎
  48. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 32, 164. ↩︎
  49. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 182. ↩︎
  50. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 193. ↩︎
  51. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 287, 289. ↩︎
  52. Van Til built on the thought of Abraham Kuyper here. A concise presentation of Kuyper’s view of the antithesis may be found in the first of his six lectures on Calvinism delivered at Princeton in 1898. See Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1931), 9–40. When reading this lecture, it is easy to see the seeds of much that bore abundant fruit in the thought of Van Til. Kuyper argues that Christianity as a worldview is at war with modernism as a worldview and that apologetics must be reconceived such that “principle must be arrayed against principle(p. 11). The Christian principle is found in Calvinism, and Calvinism, therefore, is the only defense against modernism. ↩︎
  53. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 62. ↩︎
  54. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 19. ↩︎
  55. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 92. ↩︎
  56. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 98. ↩︎
  57. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 92. ↩︎
  58. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 63. ↩︎
  59. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 95. ↩︎
  60. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 36. ↩︎
  61. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 148. ↩︎
  62. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 64. Van Til, especially in his earlier writings, often makes these kinds of absolute statements with little or no qualification. Taken by themselves, these statements can give the reader the impression that Van Til thinks the non-Christian cannot look out his window and know that the tree he sees is a tree. However, as we will see below, a closer reading of Van Til, reveals that he does qualify these absolute statements. ↩︎
  63. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 90–91. Natural theology as traditionally understood is “the knowledge of God that is available to reason through the revelation of God in the natural order” (Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017], 362). Van Til offers his own version of “natural theology” in his chapter “Nature and Scripture” in Ned Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, eds., The Infallible Word, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2002). ↩︎
  64. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 68. ↩︎
  65. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 45. ↩︎
  66. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 258; Common Grace and the Gospel, 92. ↩︎
  67. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 63. ↩︎
  68. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 43. ↩︎
  69. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 57. ↩︎
  70. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 194. ↩︎
  71. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 258. ↩︎
  72. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 125. ↩︎
  73. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 280. ↩︎
  74. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 285. ↩︎
  75. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 150. ↩︎
  76. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 86, 92. ↩︎
  77. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 151. ↩︎
  78. If we use Van Til’s “colored glasses” analogy, we could perhaps say (Van Til himself does not explain it in this way) that the unbeliever sees the tree and knows it is a tree, but because of the colored lenses, he always thinks the tree is red. He never knows it as it truly is, namely, brown and green. In short, he has knowledge of the tree, but not “true” knowledge of the tree. I cannot say with certainty that Van Til would find my illustration accurate. The lack of clarity in his published thoughts on the subject make it almost impossible to have any certainty about what he actually believed on this point. ↩︎
  79. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 109; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 45, 166; The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 177, 190. ↩︎
  80. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 45. ↩︎
  81. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 109. ↩︎
  82. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 17. ↩︎
  83. It should be noted that these are not the only two options, but they are the two that Van Til mentions. ↩︎
  84. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 17, 19. ↩︎
  85. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 128. ↩︎
  86. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 10. ↩︎
  87. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 129. ↩︎
  88. I am using the phrase “the traditional method” here and in what follows because it is the phrase Van Til himself frequently uses (see, for example, Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed., 3). It is not the most helpful term because more than one method of apologetics existed prior to Van Til. ↩︎
  89. Van Til, “My Credo,” in E.R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1993), 10–11. ↩︎
  90. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 172. ↩︎
  91. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 197. ↩︎
  92. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 340–41. ↩︎
  93. For example, Van Til, Christian Theistic Evidences, 2nd ed., xxxvii. ↩︎
  94. Garcia, preface to In Defense of the Eschaton, xv. ↩︎
  95. Cecil De Boer, “The New Apologetic,” The Calvin Forum XIX, no. 1–2 (August–September 1953): 3. The remaining series of articles in this journal on Van Til’s apologetics can be found here and here. These articles are significant because they are among the first philosophical critiques of Van Til’s thought. Van Til responds to the articles in his book The Defense of the Faith. ↩︎
  96. See Cecil De Boer, “The New Apologetic,” 5. De Boer helpfully points out that “To define ‘five’ as ‘eight,’ and ‘eight’ as ‘ten,’ and then to argue that five plus eight equals eighteen may to the layman smell of deep thought and the higher mathematics, but it is not very fruitful philosophizing, to say nothing of effective apologetics” (p. 5). ↩︎
  97. Jesse De Boer, “Professor Van Til’s Apologetics: Part 1: A Linguistic Bramble Patch,” The Calvin Forum XIX, no. 1–2 (August–September 1953): 11; Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 21, 165; William Edgar’s footnote on page 150 of Van Til, Christian Apologetics; J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2019), 156–57. ↩︎
  98. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 36. I use the phrase “school of thought” with some hesitation given the different interpretations of Kant and of post-Kantian idealism that exist in the relevant literature, but for the purposes of this brief article some generalization is necessary. ↩︎
  99. See Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 155–56. ↩︎
  100. At the level of popular Van Tillianism, the extreme unqualified statements are often the only statements that one will find referenced. Members of Van Tillian social media groups, for example, sometimes seem completely unaware of Van Til’s other statements to the effect that unbelievers do know many things. ↩︎
  101. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 63. It should be observed that not every theological problem has to be or can be “solved” to the extent that it is fully understandable to the Christian. The Christian faith contains numerous doctrines that contain mystery. The doctrine of the Trinity and the hypostatic union, for example, contain elements that are beyond human comprehension. The difference between the “problems” involved in these doctrines and the problem involved in Van Til’s doctrine of the unbeliever’s knowledge is that there is abundant biblical testimony for each element of the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the hypostatic union. There is no such biblical support for the teaching that unbelievers know nothing truly and yet know many things truly. These are only the implications of Van Til’s system. In other words, the problem that exists here was caused by Van Til’s system and not by mystery in the teaching of Scripture. ↩︎
  102. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 187–91. In Van Til’s thought, the relationship between the antithesis and common grace underlies the question of the unbeliever’s knowledge. Because Van Til could not solve the problem of how to relate the antithesis to common grace, his teaching on the knowledge of unbelievers remained consistently vague. ↩︎
  103. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 192–97. ↩︎
  104. Frame is aware of this difficulty. See Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 211. ↩︎
  105. This is because traditional apologetics often argues from created effects (i.e., things in the world) to the uncreated cause of those effects. This approach assumes that the unbeliever can have some knowledge of created effects—things in the world. If Van Til’s repeated denial that unbelievers have any true knowledge of the world were accurate, it would weaken the case for traditional apologetic methods, and it is, in fact, part of Van Til’s argument against the traditional methods. However, when Van Til qualifies the strong antithetical statements and grants that unbelievers do have knowledge of the world, his critique of traditional apologetics is undermined. This may be part of the reason that popular-level Van Tillianism focuses almost exclusively on the antithetical statements. ↩︎
  106. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 65, emphasis added. ↩︎
  107. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 63, emphasis added. ↩︎
  108. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 95. ↩︎
  109. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 131. ↩︎
  110. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 36. ↩︎
  111. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 281, emphasis added. ↩︎
  112. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 63. ↩︎
  113. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 191. ↩︎
  114. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 191. ↩︎
  115. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 191; see also, Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 150. ↩︎
  116. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 191. ↩︎
  117. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 151. ↩︎
  118. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 31. ↩︎
  119. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 29; see also, Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 348, 362–64. Van Til’s critics have heard this aspect of his teaching criticized for decades. Sadly, instead of listening to the critics, many chose to excuse and defend his teaching, making the problem even worse. ↩︎
  120. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 363. ↩︎
  121. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 364. ↩︎
  122. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 348. ↩︎
  123. For a helpful survey of these debates, see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004). ↩︎
  124. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 348. ↩︎
  125. This is an example of the kind of language that leads some to detect a strong Hegelian influence in Van Til. ↩︎
  126. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1st ed., 36, cited in Timothy McConnel, “The Influence of Idealism on the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til,” JETS 48 no. 3 (September 2005): 583. ↩︎
  127. Considering Van Til’s admiration of B.B. Warfield, one cannot help but wonder if the inspiration for Van Til’s formula was a comment made by Warfield in the article “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament” (The Works of B.B. Warfield, 2:101–29). Warfield says near the end of the article, “The great thing to be taught the ancient people of God was that the God of all the earth is one person” (p. 127). Although this language was ill-advised at best, the context in which Warfield makes the statement is very different from the context in which Van Til creates his alternative Trinitarian formula. Warfield is talking about the way God is revealed in the Old Testament before the full revelation of the distinctions among the three persons and is making the point that God is revealed in the Old Testament to be personal (See p. 125). The context of Warfield’s comment is progressive revelation. Van Til, on the other hand, is revising the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. ↩︎
  128. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 39. ↩︎
  129. I am aware that a number of Van Til’s students and followers have written in defense of his “one person/three person” formula. I beg them as brothers in Christ to prayerfully reconsider. Van Til was not a very clear thinker. Those who are should know better. There is absolutely no reason to defend a formula that is explicitly contrary to the orthodox creeds and Reformed confessions, inherently ambiguous, and inevitably prone to cause Christians in the pews to stumble. The problem is made even worse in a day and age of profound biblical and theological ignorance, rampant heresy, and latitudinarianism. Those who are defending Van Til’s novel formula and teaching it in churches and seminaries are communicating to parishioners and prospective pastors that formally heretical theological novelty is not something about which they should be terribly concerned. Defenders of Van Til’s formula will often argue that he was an orthodox Trinitarian and that the formula can be read in an orthodox sense (e.g., all Van Til meant was that God is not an impersonal force). His language will sometimes be excused on the basis of “paradox.” On the grounds of what he writes most of the time, I’m willing to grant that Van Til was an orthodox Trinitarian, but the only way his formula can be read in an orthodox sense is to equivocate on the meaning of the word person. Furthermore, the attempt to find an orthodox sense for Van Til’s formula is completely unnecessary when the traditional formula already has an orthodox sense. Van Til is imagining a problem that doesn’t exist and then creating a solution that is far worse than the problem he thinks he has found. Defending his formula by appealing to “paradox” is also unwise because it opens the door to defending all manner of unorthodox formulas by means of the same appeal. If we learned anything from Neoorthodoxy, it is that almost anything can be defended by appealing to “paradox.” The continued defense of this formula reveals one of the many dangers of the cult of personality that has grown up around Van Til. Too many of his followers are seemingly incapable of saying anything critical of him, even when he errs on matters of the utmost theological importance and causes little ones in the pews to stumble. There is no justification for Van Til’s use of this formula, and there is no justification for the continued defense of it by ministers and theologians committed to orthodox Christianity and the oversight of Christ’s sheep. It is important to realize that while Van Til’s use of this formula does not necessarily mean that he was a Trinitarian heretic (given his stated commitment to Nicene Trinitarianism and the WCF elsewhere in his writings), the continued defense of the formula does open the door for those with less integrity than Van Til to slip heresy into the church under the cover of equally ambiguous and un-confessional language. This is how Norman Shepherd’s false doctrine on justification gained a foothold in otherwise orthodox and confessional Reformed churches, and sadly, Van Til himself and many of his followers supported Shepherd’s teaching (see Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 393; Muether, Van Til, 221). It is going to be very difficult for those who have continually made excuses for Van Til to deal with other ministers who use his methodology to import theological heresy into the church. ↩︎
  130. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 25. ↩︎
  131. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 73. ↩︎
  132. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 73. ↩︎
  133. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 334. ↩︎
  134. This last point is obviously not so much a criticism of Van Til as it is a criticism of some of his followers, but their teaching on this point can very easily be seen as a result of Van Til’s own lack of clarity. This should not be taken to imply that Van Tillians alone are in danger of rejecting orthodox theology proper. ↩︎
  135. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 31. ↩︎
  136. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 89–90. ↩︎
  137. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 43. ↩︎
  138. Van Til’s use of the phrase “classical realism” to describe the philosophy of the early and medieval church is oversimplified, to say the least. I am using it here because it is the phrase Van Til used. ↩︎
  139. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 275. A thorough discussion of “realism” in the early and medieval church is beyond the scope of this article. Generally speaking, in discussions of the early and medieval church, realism is usually used to describe the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Platonic realism argues that universals exist in and of themselves. Aristotelian realism argues that universals exist in individual things. Both forms of realism are opposed to nominalism, which arose in the early medieval church (e.g., Roscelin). It argues that universals are merely names. If I may be allowed my own bit of oversimplification, Plato would argue that the form (or universal) of “humanness” exists in the realm of the forms. Aristotle would argue that the form of “humanness” exists only in individual human beings. Nominalists would argue that “humanness” is merely a name but has no “real” existence. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, realism was often used in opposition to various forms of subjective idealism, which tend to limit our knowledge (and sometimes reality itself) to the mind and its ideas. ↩︎
  140. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 226, 234, 240, 273, 275, 287, 290. It is not clear whether Van Til is a nominalist. He does argue that Christians should think in a concrete manner, which means that we can use “such universals as ‘creatureliness’ as limiting concepts only. Creatureliness as such can nowhere be found among men. It is a pure abstraction” (Common Grace and the Gospel, 26–27). ↩︎
  141. Consider, for example, the debates over the word homoousios during the Arian controversy. In using the word ousia, Christians were using a word that had a history in Greek philosophy. Likewise, Christological discussions of the “natures” of Christ borrowed words and concepts from Greek philosophy. ↩︎
  142. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 57. ↩︎
  143. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 43. Does this include Aristotle, or is Aristotle alone in having no elements of truth in his system? ↩︎
  144. Van Til seems to grant the possibility of “elements of truth” in any non-Christian system of thought except Aristotelianism. ↩︎
  145. It is impossible to provide a single definition that describes accurately all of the various post-Enlightenment philosophies. One thing many of them have in common, however, is the denial of realist philosophy in any of its forms. It is no longer assumed that humans have true knowledge of a real world external to the mind. In some cases, it is no longer assumed that a real world external to the mind exists. Obviously, if there is no knowledge of the external world, traditional ideas of natural theology that reason from a knowledge of created effects in that external world to the Creator (the Cause) are impossible. ↩︎
  146. See James Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959). ↩︎
  147. John Frame, for example, rejects immutability, saying: “But the historical process does change, and as an agent in history, God himself changes. On Monday, he wants something to happen, and on Tuesday, something else. He is grieved one day, pleased the next. In my view, anthropomorphic is too weak a description of these narratives. In these accounts, God is not merely like an agent in time. He really is in time, changing as others change. And we should not say that his atemporal, changeless existence is more real than his changing existence in time, as the term anthropomorphic suggests. Both are real” (Systematic Theology, 377). Oliphint’s reformulation of the doctrine of God is found in his book God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012). Westminster Theological Seminary President Peter Lillback addressed this book in a chapel address on March 27, 2019. He said that after a close examination of the content of this book, the seminary bought the rights to the book and pulped all the remaining copies. ↩︎
  148. See, for example, Jesse De Boer, “Professor Van Til’s Apologetics: Part 3: God and Human Knowledge,” The Calvin Forum XIX, no. 4 (November 1953): 56. ↩︎
  149. See Richard Muller, “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay,” Calvin Theological Journal 53, no. 2 (2018): 255–88. This review of Scott Oliphint’s book on Thomas Aquinas examines the ways in which Aquinas has been consistently misinterpreted by Van Tillian theologians. Muller wrote a three-part popular-level version of this article here, here, and here. ↩︎
  150. For a helpful recent examination of Van Til’s teaching on Aquinas, see Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 71–96. ↩︎
  151. For example, see Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 31; Survey of Christian Epistemology, 60; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 97, 200. ↩︎
  152. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 31. ↩︎
  153. Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 91. ↩︎
  154. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 60. ↩︎
  155. Aquinas’ doctrine of the analogy of being, the analogia entis, is a complex and debated topic, and a full discussion is well beyond the scope of this already lengthy article. Much of the current debate centers on whether Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is an analogy of proper proportionality. This was the dominant interpretation among Thomists up until the twentieth century. Among those who have argued for some version of this view are Tommaso de Vio Cajetan, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Jacques Maritain, James Anderson, Edward Feser, and Steven A. Long. This traditional view has been rejected by most (but certainly not all) contemporary Thomists who argue that Aquinas abandoned the analogy of proper proportionality in favor of an analogy of attribution. Among those who argue for the contemporary view are George Klubertanz, Bernard Montagnes, and Ralph McInerny. I believe the traditional interpretation of Aquinas is correct on this point. In any case, the debate does not concern whether or not Aquinas blurred the lines between the Creator and the creature. For helpful discussions of what Aquinas teaches on the subject of analogy and the debates surrounding his teaching, see, Tommaso de Vio Cajetan, The Analogy of Names, and the Concept of Being, trans. Edward A. Bushinski (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 1953); Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Analogy (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996); John F. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 501–75; John R. Mortensen, Understanding St. Thomas on Analogy (Rome: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2006); Steven A. Long, Analogia Entis (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011); Gyula Klima, “Theory of Language,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, eds. Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2012), 379–85. ↩︎
  156. Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings (London: Penguin, 1998), 44. ↩︎
  157. Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God, Q. 7, art. 2. ↩︎
  158. Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God, Q. 7, art. 7. ↩︎
  159. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, book I, ch. 26. ↩︎
  160. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q. 3, A. 2, Respondeo. ↩︎
  161. Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God, Q. 3, art. 1. In Aquinas’ works, the Creator-creature distinction is described in a number of ways. God is pure act while creatures are a combination of act and potency. God is His Being while creatures receive being. God is necessary being while creatures are contingent beings. God is the first and primary cause while creatures are effects. ↩︎
  162. See Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 349; see also Robert LaRocca, “Cornelius Van Til’s Rejection and Appropriation of Thomistic Metaphysics” (Th.M. thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 2012), 16–34. ↩︎
  163. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 123. ↩︎
  164. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 56. ↩︎
  165. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 286; cf. also Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 94. Van Til seems also to have been influenced in his view of scholasticism by Herman Dooyeweerd. For a helpful analysis of the relation between Dooyeweerd’s thought and Van Til’s thought on this point, see Laurence R. O’Donnell III, “Kees Van Til als Nederlandse-Amerikaanse, Neo-Calvinistisch-Presbyteriaan apologeticus: An Analysis of Cornelius Van Til’s Presupposition of Reformed Dogmatics with special reference to Herman Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek” (Th.M. thesis, Calvin Theological Seminary, 2011), 196–202. ↩︎
  166. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 290. ↩︎
  167. See Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2005). ↩︎
  168. Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), 35. See also Willem Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2011), 1; Richard Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000), 42. ↩︎
  169. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 178; see also, Richard Muller, “Calvin and the ‘Calvinists:’ Assessing Continuities and Discontinuities Between the Reformation and Orthodoxy,” Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 345–75. ↩︎
  170. On Calvin as the representative of early Reformed theology, see, for example, chapter 8 of Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology; The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 2. On the Calvinists and their betrayal of the pure theology of Calvin, see, for example, Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 100. ↩︎
  171. Institutes, 2.2.18, from the 1845 Beveridge translation. ↩︎
  172. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 148. ↩︎
  173. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 149. Van Til will go on to make the ambiguous qualifications we discussed above in his attempt to explain how a fallen man can have knowledge that is not true knowledge, but these are not qualifications that Calvin makes, and to use them to describe Calvin’s view is to misrepresent Calvin’s doctrine. ↩︎
  174. Calvin, Institutes 2.2.15–16. ↩︎
  175. Calvin, Institutes 2.2.16. ↩︎
  176. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 63. ↩︎
  177. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 258. ↩︎
  178. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 258. One cannot help but ask: Could Aristotle do this? Could he discover something that is true and usable for the Christian as far as it goes? ↩︎
  179. See Richard Muller, “Reading Aquinas from a Reformed Perspective: A Review Essay,” Calvin Theological Journal 53, no. 2 (2018). In his concluding paragraph, Muller writes, “Further, Oliphint’s argumentation rests largely on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, who by no stretch of the imagination can be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas. The end result of their readings is a mangled interpretation of Aquinas that impedes genuine access to his thought and actually stands in the way of legitimate interpretation. Finally, inasmuch as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed orthodoxy in general are largely in agreement with Aquinas on issues of epistemology, natural theology, doctrine of God, and, indeed, apologetics, Oliphint’s and Van Til’s views at best stand at the margin of what can be called Reformed and, at worst, create a kind of sectarian theology and philosophy that is out of accord with the older Reformed tradition and its confessions” (p. 288). ↩︎
  180. J. Oliver Buswell, “The Fountainhead of Presuppositionalism,” The Bible Today 42, no. 2 (1948); Cecil De Boer, “The New Apologetic,” The Calvin Forum XIX, no. 1–2 (August–September 1953): 3; Jesse De Boer, “Professor Van Til’s Apologetics: Part 3: God and Human Knowledge,” The Calvin Forum XIX, no. 4 (November 1953): 57. ↩︎
  181. See, for example, David Haines, “Presuppositionalism and Natural Theology: A Critical Analysis of the Presuppositional Challenge to Natural Theology,” 4n18; J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2019), 144–47, 156–57. ↩︎
  182. B.A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox: An Interpretation and Refinement of the Theological Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2014), 1, 59–79. ↩︎
  183. See Van Til, Christianity and Idealism. ↩︎
  184. Timothy McConnel, “The Influence of Idealism on the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til,” JETS 48, no. 3 (September 2005), 577. ↩︎
  185. McConnel, “The Influence of Idealism on the Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til,” 577. ↩︎
  186. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 10. ↩︎
  187. See the discussion in Fesko, Reforming Apologetics, 144–45. ↩︎
  188. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 11. ↩︎
  189. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 8. ↩︎
  190. Glenn Alexander Magee, The Hegel Dictionary (London: Continuum, 2010), 61. ↩︎
  191. Concrete universals are distinguished from abstract universals. The concepts are used by Hegel in his attempt to relate universals and particulars. Whenever and wherever a concrete universal exists, it is a particular individual. When “dogness” exists, it exists as an individual dog. Whenever and wherever an abstract universal exists, it exists as a property of a particular individual. When “brownness” exists, it exists as a property of an individual dog or an individual tree, etc. Furthermore, it exists as a property of more than one dog or tree. For a more thorough explanation of the concept, see Robert Stern, “Hegel, British Idealism, and the Curious Case of The Concrete Universal,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2007): 126–34. ↩︎
  192. David Haines has helpfully addressed this issue at length in his article “Presuppositionalism and Natural Theology: A Critical Analysis of the Presuppositional Challenge to Natural Theology.” ↩︎
  193. On Kuyper’s influence, see Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 17; The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 23–24. On Dooyeweerd’s influence, see Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, iii; The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 237; A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 5. ↩︎
  194. The writings of Herman Dooyeweerd are arguably even less clear than those of Van Til. ↩︎
  195. James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013), 31. ↩︎
  196. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 32. ↩︎
  197. See Fesko, Reforming Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2019), 182–83; Antoni Diller, “Herman Dooyeweerd: A Profile of His Thought,” Spectrum 22, no. 2: 143–44. ↩︎
  198. Recall the way in which theological liberalism allowed post-Enlightenment philosophical thought to establish its agenda. See, for example, Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology (Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015). ↩︎
  199. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 295. ↩︎
  200. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 58. ↩︎
  201. Van Til’s defenders continually ask his critics to read him charitably. I would simply ask that they return the favor and ask whether Van Til read those with whom he disagreed charitably (or even accurately). ↩︎
  202. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 324. ↩︎
  203. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 180. ↩︎
  204. See, for example, Sproul, Gerstner, and Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, 215. ↩︎
  205. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 129. ↩︎
  206. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 256; A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 19. If explaining an assumed intelligibility is the main criterion by which worldviews are to be judged, then it might be argued that the presuppositionalist method necessarily presupposes intelligibility before it presupposes the ontological Trinity. ↩︎
  207. J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics addresses at length the differences between the classical Reformed understanding of natural theology and Van Til’s approach. ↩︎
  208. Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word, eds. N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1946), 287–88. ↩︎
  209. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 99; “My Credo,” in Geehan, Jerusalem and Athens, 14; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 108. ↩︎
  210. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017), 362. See also Muller’s discussion in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:270–84. ↩︎
  211. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 318. For the conflation of natural theology with natural revelation, see Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word. ↩︎
  212. Van Til, “My Credo,” in Geehan, Jerusalem and Athens, 14. ↩︎
  213. Van Til, “My Credo,” in Geehan, Jerusalem and Athens, 18. ↩︎
  214. Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed., 317. ↩︎
  215. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 99. ↩︎
  216. Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., 197. ↩︎
  217. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 49. ↩︎
  218. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 96. ↩︎
  219. Russell Re Manning, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1. ↩︎
  220. It would have never occurred to a Thomas Aquinas, for example, to think of creation in the same way that a modern materialist thinks of it. To lump them together does not do justice to either. ↩︎
  221. Whatever may be said about post-Enlightenment versions of natural theology, it is not accurate to claim that the natural theology of someone like Thomas Aquinas maintained that the existence of God was only possible, rather than metaphysically necessary (see Van Til, “My Credo,” in Geehan, Jerusalem and Athens, 18). Aquinas’ argument from motion, for example, essentially argues that if change exists in the world (and he says it does), and that if this change is potency being reduced to act (and he says it is), then there necessarily (not possibly) must be a being who is pure act. In the fourteenth century, nominalists, such as William of Ockham, did deny that the existence of God could be demonstrated and did say that any philosophical arguments could show only the probability of God’s existence, but William of Ockham is not Aquinas, and the different positions of different thinkers need to be distinguished (on Ockham’s view of natural theology, see Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy [New York: Doubleday, 1953], 3:12, 80–84). ↩︎
  222. See Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:273. ↩︎
  223. Calvin, Institutes, 1.3.1. ↩︎
  224. Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.1. ↩︎
  225. Calvin, Institutes, 1.5.14, 15. ↩︎
  226. Calvin, Commentary on Acts 14:17, in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979), XIX/1, 19. ↩︎
  227. Calvin, Commentary on Acts 17:22, in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979), XIX/1, 154. ↩︎
  228. Calvin, Commentary on Acts 17:24, in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1979), XIX/1, 157–58. ↩︎
  229. Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 95–97. ↩︎
  230. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1992), 1:5. ↩︎
  231. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:5. ↩︎
  232. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:6. ↩︎
  233. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:6. ↩︎
  234. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:6. ↩︎
  235. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:8. ↩︎
  236. Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, Prolegomena, trans. Todd M. Rester, ed. Joel Beeke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2018), 77. ↩︎
  237. Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1:78. ↩︎
  238. Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1:78. ↩︎
  239. Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1:78. ↩︎
  240. Worth reading on the subject of the Reformed doctrine of natural theology are Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (London: Routledge, 2009); Wallace W. Marshall, Puritanism and Natural Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2016); David Haines, “Natural Theology and Protestant Orthodoxy,” in God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church, ed. Bradford Littlejohn (Moscow, Idaho: Davenant Institute, 2018), 53–82. ↩︎
  241. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, 47. ↩︎
  242. I have sometimes seen Van Til’s lack of clarity blamed on the fact that he was Dutch and that English was his second language. This seems a rather weak excuse. Van Til moved to the United States when he was ten years old and learned English well. As an adult he preached, taught, and wrote in English. His recorded lectures and sermons are available online, and it is difficult even to detect an accent. If his command of the English language was as poor as some of his defenders claim, then he should not have been allowed to teach and preach to English speakers. He should have limited his teaching and speaking to Dutch audiences. ↩︎

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