What Does Cornelius Van Til Know?
I have slowly been building up to an examination of Cornelius Van Til and his system of presuppositional apologetics. I was introduced to Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics (VTPA) over seven years ago when I listened to Charlie Clough’s Bible Framework series which was largely based on Van Til’s work. I wanted to learn more about VTPA but was put off by the high price of his works and a writing style that one reviewer described as “turgid.” I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on books that I would never read.
Over time I researched Van Til on the internet and bit by bit I discovered resources that filled in the missing pieces for me. I also learned that I want nothing to do with VTPA. “Why is that?” you may ask. The answer for me is simple: at root of VTPA is the belief that finite mankind cannot have true knowledge about anything. All human knowledge, according to Van Til, is analogical and therefore different in both quantity and quality from God’s knowledge. At first that seems really spiritual but after a while I realized that it makes a search for truth by any person merely wasted effort. Were the Bereans foolish to test the teachings of the Apostle Paul against scripture?
I have come to believe that all heresy begins by undermining objective truth. I think Groucho Marx had the concept down when he asked “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” If I can’t take what is in the Bible as reliable truth that I can understand then I have nothing.
In this post I am going to provide my few readers with some internet resources, along with some quotes, so you all can begin to make up your own minds about VTPA. Please note that all of the links and quotes are from those who hold to Reformed (Calvinist) theology. You may agree or disagree with them but please don’t tell me that I don’t understand Reformed theology.
First I would like to provide some short quotes from Van Til to get your appetites whetted:
Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. -Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 61.
… while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 9.
All teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory. Ibid., 142.
According to Van Til, God’s Word, all throughout Scripture, appears to our human minds to be logically contradictory. Indeed, he even made the claim that to even attempt to demonstrate the logical consistency of certain doctrines (e.g. divine sovereignty and human responsibility) was to fall prey to the error of “Rationalism.” (See The Text of a Complaint)
VTPA is the dominant form of presuppositional apologetics in Reformed circles but it isn’t the only one. Gordon Clark, who was also Reformed in theology, developed a presuppositional apologetic that allowed the use of logic (derided as “Aristotelian” by Van Tilians). The minority “Clarkians” have certainly tried to get the word out about Van Til as this quote demonstrates:
It is precisely this relationship between Scripture and those propositions that can be necessarily deduced from Scripture that many theologians, including Cornelius Van Til and his followers, have long denied. Van Til argued that all Scripture is analogical and apparently contradictory, that God’s logic is not man’s logic, and that there is a qualitative, in addition to a quantitative, difference between God’s thoughts and man’s. According to Van Til, it is not just the extent of God’s knowledge that can never be exhausted by man, but there is a complete discontinuity between the truths God knows and the “truths” man knows. God’s knowledge and the knowledge possible to man, Van Til and the Westminster Seminary faculty wrote in 1944, do not coincide “at any single point.” Van Til repeated this statement many times in his subsequent books. As a consequence of this complete disjunction between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge,“ Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical,” and “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.” Not only is there a complete break between God’s thoughts and man’s, but, as we will see, God’s logic and man’s logic are not the same. This explains why one of the hallmarks of Vantilian Newspeak is the distinction (without a discernible difference) between “apparent” and “real” contradiction sin Scripture. As Van Til put it, “While we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory, we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory.”
Two questions that arise are these: What is the difference between the “really contradictory” and the “ apparently contradictory”? and, Is there any method by which we can tell one class of contradictions from the other? If there is no such method, what are the meaning and purpose of asserting that all Scripture is “apparently contradictory”? Does not such an assertion encourage laziness in Bible study, commend ignorance, and elevate clerics and academics, especially those of the Vantilian stripe, into a new priestly class who alone can peer into the Biblical stew of apparent contradictions, antinomies, tensions, analogies, and insoluble paradoxes and demand assent to their contradictory view of truth on the basis of nothing more than their own authority?
The Trinity Review / July and August 2005
by Sean Gerety
I think those are very good questions indeed.
Dr. Robert L. Reymond, a Reformed theologian, wrote a book on apologetics titled: “The Justification Of Knowledge: An Introductory Study In Christian Apologetic Methodology” which spends some time on VTPA and concludes:
Furthermore, if truth may appear to be contradictory, the detection of real falsehood is impossible! Consequently, better would it be to resolve the contradiction through further study, admitting until such resolution is achieved that one has not properly understood one (maybe both) of the scriptural statements, that is, admitting that the contradiction is due to human ignorance of some clarifying datum, than to imply that God, when revealing Himself to men in Scripture, actually teaches in the name of truth what, when properly understood, will appear to the rational mind as contradictory.
Exceedingly strange it is that as ardent a foe of Barthian irrationalism as is Van Til, he comes nevertheless to the same conclusion concerning the nature of truth for man as does Barth. The only difference in this connection between Van Til and Barth is that Van Til insists that truth is objectively present in biblical propositions while for Barth truth is essentially existential. But for both religious truth can appear, at least at times, paradoxical.
The Justification Of Knowledge: An Introductory Study In Christian Apologetic Methodology
by Dr. Robert L. Reymond
And finally a quote from what I consider to be the best critique of Cornelius Van Til that I have found to date:
A Firm Rejection of Reason
Perhaps Van Til does not mind contradictions in his position, for if he is charged with such, he will answer that this is but reason cavilling at him. According to Rushdoony, “Van Til’s approach is neither inductive or deductive, a priori or a posteriori, as these terms are historically understood, because (quoting Van Til) ‘they contemplate man’s activity in the universe but do not figure with the significance of God above the universe.’” Van Til, page 23. Van Til says, “We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning possible to finite man.” Ibid. page 24. One can hardly imagine a more firm rejection of reason. So if we point out contradictions in Van Til’s system, he has already indicated that it won’t make much difference to him. In passing we can notice what is fairly obvious to anyone with some knowledge of philosophy, that Van Til’s system is a priori dogmatic transcendental irrationalism, which he has attempted to give a Christian name to.
A CRITIQUE OF CORNELIUS VAN TIL: Being a Defence of Traditional Evidential Christian Apologetics
By D. R. Trethewie of the Reforming and Congregational Church East Geelong
If anyone reading this post has had doubts about Van Til and his apologetic I encourage them to follow the links provided and read further. Whatever you believe about truth and how we attain it (or can’t attain it) will have a major impact on your life this side of Heaven.
Next week I will begin quoting from an archive of Cornelius Van Til’s work that was written for the layman. In this archive Van Til is very clear about what he believes. Van Til’s purpose was most definitely to develop a Reformed apologetic (as opposed to a Christian apologetic). Why VTPA would be taught at any Dispensational seminary still eludes me.