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Cornelius Van Til

1895-1987

 

 

From New Oxford Review, November 1981, 29-30.  Printed under “Tony Flood.”  On “cringe-ometer” scale from 1 to 10, with 10 inducing a coma from embarrassment, this rates a 9.  I pontificated about Van Til’s thought, about which I knew little first-hand, instead of actually reviewing a book about the role of evidence in an apologetic often mischaracterized as anti-evidence.  In less than 600 words, I managed to beg just about every apologetical question, rendering myself a poster boy for the epistemological un-self-consciousness that, Van Til argued, renders every anti-Christian theistic worldview impotent. 

In slight mitigation of my offense, I recall that as a New Yorker, who was not long before writing this a student in a doctoral program in philosophy, could not interact regularly with California-based Gregory L. Bahnsen, a Ph. D. in philosophy, Van Til’s protégé in apologetics. Had I been able to, my confusions would have been exposed and rectified much sooner. As it happened, I had to wait for the day I could carry around with me dozens of mp3s of his recorded lecture series and read many articles that are now made freely available online.  Even the very best of Bahnsen, his Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis, was not available until after his passing. 

I am posting this only to memorialize the flawed inception of my investigation into Van Til’s thought.  I also observe that I did not give up.

Anthony Flood

January 16, 2013

 

Review of Thom Notaro, Van Til and the Use of Evidence.  Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980, 136 pp. $3.75

Anthony Flood

For over 50 years, arch-Calvinist Cornelius Van Til has championed a strategy for defending the Christian faith that challenges the unbeliever’s presumed autonomy with respect to divine revelation and authority.  Every other apologetic method, Van Til argues, lets the unbeliever sit in judgment on Scripture and thereby subordinates eternal truth to the demands of passing intellectual fancy.  Van Til’s apologetical method, “presuppositionalism,” asserts that only by starting with Christian presuppositions—the supreme authority of God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture—can a principled as well as suc-cessful defense of the faith be made.  Presuppo-sitions, by definition, cannot be argued for.  Christian presuppositions should be accepted over their competitors because they alone do not imply contradictions.  Christian apologists contradict them-selves when they argue, for example, for the authoritative status of God’s Word: they have in fact only awarded that status to some non-Christian presuppositions about the nature of knowledge, truth, and reality.

Unfortunately, Notaro’s book fails to see through Van Til’s odd notion of presuppositions.  A presuppo-sition is a belief that underlies and informs one’s world view and which, when brought to conscious-ness, may be found untenable.  A presupposition is not a birthmark over which one has no control, but a mental deposit that experience has left and that critical reflection may yet dislodge and expel.  The inevitability of presuppositions justifies none of them.  Therefore, however much Christian precepts have come to saturate one’s thinking and doing, they have not—from the point of view of philosophy—thereby achieved the status of unquestionable axioms.

Van Til and his followers do not seem to appreciate sufficiently the fact that our God-given minds have certain immanent rational demands that cannot be ignored in the name of Christian submissiveness.  Van Til himself bows to these norms when he employs the law of noncontradiction to convict non-Christian world views of error.  Thus by his own criterion his system is untenable: he at once affirms the theoretical priority both of Scripture and of a prescriptural logical norm (consistency).

Also disturbing is Van Tilian dogmatism, which Notaro does nothing to temper.  Van Til’s apologetic method seems as dear to him as the “five points of Calvinism.”  The ironic result is that Van Tilians pro-pound a pseudo-rationalist world view in the name of bringing “every thought captive to Christ”: pseudo-rationalist, for it affirms that facts can be truly grasped only in the light of the true system of interpretation (an unadulterated Hegelianism); pseudo-rationalist, for it tries to circumvent the immanent demands of reason.

Believers should live their lives as genuinely as honestly nonbelievers do, that is, with openness to experiences that tell against, as well as those that support, their religious convictions.  But for apologist like Notaro and others who follow Van Til, a nonbeliever is simply a liar, and it is inconceivable to them that a Chrsitian should ever doubt his faith.  To the Van Tilian, intellectual effort spent to overcome Christian doubt is evidence that the doubter is still committed to his God-denying presumption of autonomy.

There is, of course, no sure way to pierce the error of such dogmatism, for any questioning of presuppo-sitionalism can be laid at the door of the questioner’s sinful nature (just as Marxists and Freudians reduce their opponents to products of their social and sexual natures, respectively).  Such incredible dogmatism does not defend Christianity and fools no one except perhaps the presuppositionalists themselves.