a chapter by chapter review of Van Til’s Apologetic: Reading & Analysis by Greg Bahnsen, P&R Publishing, 1998.
review of chapter 1, sections 1.2 and 1.3 (part ONE of two)
In Van Til’s Apologetic we continue examining what Bahnsen presents as the beginning concepts or core thought anchors in Van Til’s work. Before we continue I want to mention a few things as we proceed through VTA.
- In this series of chapter by chapter reviews we are looking at VTA with an inquiring eye rather than simply giving a condensed re-telling of its content. Van Til’s concepts and method fit within a larger world of ideas. Because that is the case we should want to examine his key concepts and method in relation to what was going on around him and how ideas which preceded him impacted his concepts and method.
- So far in three posts we will have managed to only get within sight of the first half-a-dozen pages or so. Not to worry, though. Topping out at over 700 pages we will not go through the whole of VTA at such a slow pace or we might still be doing this a year from now. We are going at slower pace in the opening chapters since the foundational concepts and driving components of Van Til’s method are so very important to understanding the rest of the book. After we get through chapter 2 the pace of these posts will quicken given that the remainder of VTA is mostly an expansion of what we learn in the first two chapters.
- It has helped me to learn over the years that there is by now more than one Presuppositional theory and method. Van Til’s method represent the earliest among those various Presuppositional method that are well known. In this series of reviews we analyse only Van Til’s method and may refer to other variations for explanation.
Van Til and Kant’s “transcendental idealism”
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Van Til was Kantian in the thoroughgoing sense, but neither is it square with the facts to say that Van Til was not Kantian in any sense. Van Til was Kantian in his own way. That much we can be sure of. I get push-back from the many Presuppositionalists when this news comes to their ears. That Van Til was Kantian in some degree, however, cannot be so easily dismissed.
In this post we will highlight one concept that Bahnsen notes across sections 1.2 and 1.3 – namely, Van Til’s concept of “a transcendental defense of Christianity” (p5-6). In the next post (sections 1.2 and 1.3, part two of two) we will look at the importance to the Presuppositionalist that he “challenge the unbeliever” in “his worldview” (p5).
We will look now at Van Til’s “transcendental defense” and its genetic heritage in Immanuel Kant. The topic of Van Til’s “transcendental defense” will carry over into the next post as well as section 1.4 (p7-26). At present we will see saw how the basics of his “transcendental defense” has similarity with Kant’s transcendental idealism and how it flows through Van Til’s method.
Question – So are those of us who see Kant’s ideas in Van Til seeing too much? I can confidently say, no. Hear now a few insights from those who know Van Til’s work as well or better than most.
- “…many followers of Van Til see his system as a kind of transcendental argument which contends that it is absolutely necessary to presuppose the divine revelation in the Bible before one can consistently think, communicate, do science, or make any sense out of life or his world.” (N. L. Geisler and P. D. Feinberg, An Introduction to Philosophy, 264).
- William White concurs that the origin of Van Til’s use of the term “presupposition” is to be found in Kant. (W. White, Jr., Van Til: Defender ofthe Faith, 74-75).
- Scott Oliphint, a prominent Presuppositionalist, says about a statement Van Til made on God’s knowledge that, “Van Til is using the term ‘analytical’ in the Kantian sense.” (Defense of the Faith, 2008, 4th edition of 1955, 32).
- quoting John Frame, another prominent Presuppositionalist: “Transcendental argument became a staple of the writings of the idealist school that followed Kant, and from there it made its way into Christian apologetics. James Orr (1844-1913) employed it. But the twentieth-century apologist who placed the most weight on the transcendental argument (which he sometimes called “reasoning by presupposition”) was Cornelius Van Til…”
Kant’s thought is complex and several layers deep, yet we can discern the kernel of his “transcendental idealism” in a basic diagram that shows a circle broken in half and its two halves never touching. This means according to Kant that in the noumenal realm is where “things-in-themselves” exist, including God. Mankind locked in the phenomenal realm cannot know the “things-in-themselves.” We can, however, by a kind of intuition, a presuppositional sense, an “indirect” experience of the noumena, but never as the “things-in-themselves.”
In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant put it plainly this way:
But though it needs proof, it should be entitled a principle, not a theorem, because it has the peculiar character that it makes possible the very experience which is its own ground of proof, and that in this experience it must always itself be presupposed.
(Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason [trans. Norman Kemp Smith; London: MacMillan, 1958], B765).
Students of Van Til recall how often if not in every lecture that he wrote two circles on the chalk board. They are drawn a little differently than how Kant’s “transcendental idealism” has been sketched, but as you can see what they communicate is strikingly similar. Van Til wanting to show the “incomprehensibility” of God and the hard distinction between Creator and creation drew two circles on the board. The circles never touched. That they never touched was important to the core of his “transcendental defense.”
Notice the close relation of Kant’s presuppositional thinking and a priori of “its own ground of proof” to Van Til’s presuppositional thinking and a priori of “the assumption” of the transcendent. They both have a similar circularity. Van Til wrote:
All men have a priori assumptions in terms of which they approach the facts that confront them. The Christian frankly admits that his a priori is the assumption of the existence of the ontological Trinity, the temporal fiat creation of the universe, and man’s creation in the image of God. The non-Christian has a different sort of a priori. Every non-Christian has an a priori. And the a priori of every non-Christian is different, radically different, from that of the Christian.
(Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p.198)
…all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.
(Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 101).
The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything. Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof itself.
(Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1955], 396
And more succintly expressed, Van Til is well known for saying that…
The only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn’t prove anything.
That is a very Kantian thing to say. “The only proof..”? The natural question which follows such a circular notion is this – So has God left no other “proof” for his existence than the assumption of it? Indeed he has, but in Van Til’s transcendental axiom it is not needed. We affirm that God has provided “proof” of his existence across all the strata of reality, but in Van Til’s system that evidence (or reason) must not touch the “transcendental reasoning” (p4). Better to find refuge in “mystery” than allow evidence to stand on the same plain of inquiry as the “transcendental defense.”
The two realms must not touch. The two circles or zones of reality must not touch…in Van Til’s apologetic axiom. Again Kant. John Muether who wrote a biography of Van Til notes how important it was for him that the circles not touch.
“Gordon Clark, intolerant of any notion of mystery, committed the error of allowing the circles to touch” (John Muether, Cornelius Van Til, Reformed Apologist and Churchman, P&R Publishing. p116). Setting aside for the moment any critique of Clark what is clear in this observation is Van Til’s insistence that the circles not “touch.”
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Presuppositionalists will and have objected to this presentation of the stark dichotomy in Van Til’s axiom. Along with his hard dichotomy Van Til incorporates Scripture in his Apologetic…as he should. This tends to soften the edges of his dichotomy, but still he clings to the Kantian dichotomy between God “incomprehensible” and man finite who possesses no analogy of being with God.
The difficulty for the Presuppositional method is that using texts of Scripture is not enough to baptize Kant in Van Til’s method. His Presuppositionalism has to square its “transcendental defense” with Scripture which clearly unfolds repeatedly the Creator-creature distinction as one in which God still maintains his aseity both within and without the creaturely realm. It is not necessary to set God off by himself – as in both Kant’s system and Van Til’s system and for that matter in Karl Barth’s system – in order for God’s aseity to be preserved.
The fact that Scripture presents YHWH as the I AM who can be in the world, but not of it is one of the pivot theological truths which propelled the Reformation forward. He, the Almighty, was not subject to means (or instrumentality), yet he sovereignly used or uses certain means in this world to his ends.
That truth is the headwaters of the Five Solas. Frankly, God “presupposed” and transcendantally indisposed make the Five Solas inconceivable. The Reformers did not want to make the mistake of some philosophical theologians around them and before them who explained God in voluntarist terms or nominalist terms.
One more similarity between Kant and Van Til to note is how they both saw their system of thought as being in the vein of a Copernican Revolution. For Kant’s use of the Copernican motif see Critique of Pure Reason, Preface (Bxvi-xviii). Bahnsen offered an explanation of how Van Til’s work was also on the grand scale of Copernicus in his lectures titled Van Til and the Copernican Revolution
“Van Til brought about a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in Christian thought.” (Michael Butler, ‘The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence‘). It is noteworthy that Butler begins with an positive affirmation from none other than Immanuel Kant: “If, therefore, we observe the dogmatist coming forward with ten proofs, we can be quite sure that he really has none. For had he one that yielded . . . apodeictic proof, what need would he have of the others?”
From where did this baptized Kantianism originate?
“…while Old Princeton maintained and championed a pre-Kantian theological method, the Dutch Neo-Calvinist theologians reshaped Reformed theology to fit the mold of the Kantian worldview and a distinctively modern philosophy of science.”
(Donald Fuller and Richard Gardiner quoted in Reason and Worldview: Warfield, Kuyper, Van Til and Plantinga on the Clarity of General Revelation and Function of Apologetics by Owen Anderson, p54)
In the next post on sections 1.2 and 1.3 we will consider the matter of “worldview.”
delight in God. again.