Van Til’s Summary of His Apologetics Written for the Layman

This is a post I have been agonizing over for quite some time. Cornelius Van Til is difficult to read so publicizing his explanation of his apologetics written for the layman should be very helpful to anyone who is interested. On the other hand every time I read Van Til’s writing I get angry. The material that I am going to link to, and quote from, was written by Van Til for a Reformed/Calvinist audience sympathetic to his theology and apologetics. The condescension he has toward other believers who disagree with his approach drips from much of it.

When I first read Van Til’s work I remember the confusion he used to cause me. He would back up certain statements with quotes from either the Bible or the Westminster Confession of Faith but that didn’t explain to me how he came up with his overarching system of apologetics. Once I figured out that his hatred of “Aristotelian” logic came from his syncretistic mix of Platonism with Christianity I could then understand where he got his ideas (hint: they didn’t all come from scripture). For background on this please read my previous article “Dr. Van Til or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Plato’s Cave”.

Pyramid

Articles from 1950–1959 BY CORNELIUS VAN TIL” is a collection of articles written by Cornelius Van Til in the 1950s for various Reformed publications. There are a total of 191 pages of Van Til’s writing available in that online document and reading through it is a good way to learn his thinking on apologetics. The explanation of his system I am focusing on begins on page 19 and runs for 33 pages. In those pages he touches on all of the highlights of his system.

I have toyed with the idea of extensively quoting from these articles but have decided against it. Not only might that violate copyrights (I am not sure if this is copyrighted material) but it would be just plain boring. Instead I would like to give my impressions of his apologetic approach and then quote from his summary paragraphs from the concluding article in the series.

Here are my impressions of Van Til’s writing:

  1. Cornelius Van Til is just plain old patronizing toward any and all Christians who disagree with him and his apologetics.
  2. Van Til spends most of his energy in the article belittling the non-Reformed Christian with very little concern shown for the unbeliever.
  3. Van Til denounces Aristotelian logic at every chance he gets and embraces “apparent contradictions” and circular reasoning. What he fails to mention is that he is in basic agreement with Platonic logic and the dialectical reasoning that comes with it.
  4. Van Til claims that to believe there is anything not predetermined by God in eternity past is to embrace the pagan concept of chaos (e.g. life is random and meaningless). What Van Til appears to embrace instead is pagan fatalism (five point Calvinists like Van Til believe in Causal Determinism). I believe that Van Til’s trying to force me to choose between chaos and fatalism is a false dilemma.
  5. I came to the conclusion some time ago that five point Calvinists consider unbelievers to be less than fully human and Van Til has done nothing here to change my mind about that. Five-pointers claim that unbelievers can only do what their base desires and inclinations tell them to do. While the unbeliever may think he is using logic and reason he is actually incapable of doing so. They act on instinct, like an animal, until God decides to regenerate them.

I have one more item to mention so that the quotes below make sense. Van Til’s introduction to his apologetics uses three characters in a series of mock conversations:

  1. Mr. White is a Christian who holds to a distinctly Reformed theology that Dr. Van Til approves of.
  2. Mr. Grey is a Christian who holds to a non-Reformed fundamentalist/evangelical/Lutheran theology that Dr. Van Til does not approve of.
  3. Mr. Black is our token unbeliever.

Now for my first quote from Dr. Van Til’s conclusion titled “Mr. White Sees The Richness Of His Faith”:

At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator and judge of all men is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time be recognized as an independent and all-controlling political power.

When Dr. Van Til was writing these articles in 1951-1952 the United States was in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and the United States had troops fighting in Korea. His bringing in the Soviet Union analogy is cheap theatrics and very manipulative. Authors often use emotionalism when they don’t have much of a case.

The next quote:

In the second place, Mr. White now saw clearly that a false type of reasoning for the truth of God’s existence and for the truth of Christianity involves a false kind of witnessing for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity. If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumption that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption. One must then make plain to Mr. Black, in terms of principles which Mr. Black accepts, what it means to be born again. Mr. Black will then apply the principles of modern psychology of religion to Mr. Grey’s “testimony” with respect to his regeneration and show that it is something that naturally comes in the period of adolescence.

One of the truly hilarious things that Van Til did repeatedly was have both our Reformed hero (Mr. White) and the unbeliever (Mr. Black) make fun of our poor hapless evangelical Mr. Grey. I don’t know how Dr. Van Til is so knowledgeable about the depraved mind of the unbeliever but he is convinced that Mr. Black will diagnose Mr. Grey’s approach as something that “naturally comes in the period of adolescence.” How do you argue with that kind of patronizing non-logic? The answer is you are not supposed to.

Here is my final quote:

In the third place Mr. White now saw clearly that it was quite “proper” for Mr. Grey to use a method of reasoning and a method of witness bearing that is based upon the truth of the anti-Christian and anti-theistic assumptions. Mr. Grey’s theology is Arminian or Lutheran. It is therefore based upon the idea that God is not wholly sovereign over man. It assumes that man’s responsibility implies a measure of autonomy of the sort that is the essence and foundation of the whole of Mr. Black’s thinking. It is therefore to be expected that Mr. Grey will assume that Mr. Black needs not to be challenged on his basic assumption with respect to his own assumed ultimacy or autonomy.

The anti-Christian and anti-theistic assumptions that Dr. Van Til is talking about boil down to this:

  • That mankind actually has a mind that can understand the Gospel and choose whether or not to accept it is anathema to Van Til. This would require mankind, especially unbelievers, to be able to use their volition to make a choice. In Van Til’s deterministic world all choice is God’s choice alone. As I have said before if God makes all choices then life is a sham and God is the author of evil. Heaven forbid!

I think I will stop there. I do not want to read any more of Van Til’s work. It’s too bad that a great teacher like Charlie Clough had to get mixed up with dreck like this.

Postscript

Commenter BBG has challenged me on the statement that I believe Van Til/Reformed theology treats the unbeliever as less than human. He may very well be correct that I am being unfair and I did think of that when writing up this post. However I have found no other way of expressing how some of the statements made by Van Til and other Reformed theologians impress me. A theme that gets repeated often in Reformed literature is that at the fall of mankind the image of God, that Adam and Eve were made in, was marred. In fact this image is so marred, according to them, that no unbeliever can comprehend truth or recognize a need for God. In order for any person to accept the Gospel requires God to regenerate them first. The implications of this is that the mental processes are so different between believers and unbelievers that, in Van Til’s words, there is no common ground. In fact Van Til believes that anyone who holds to there being common ground between believer and unbeliever to be “terribly dishonoring to God.”

The truth is that it first struck me that many reformed theologians treat unbelievers as less than human when I read sections of “No One Like Him” by John S. Feinberg. Feinberg is a respected Reformed theologian and I wanted to read what Reformed theology had to say on several topics without having it censored or filtered by another author. Feinberg holds to what is called compatibilism or “soft determinism.” He made a very clear argument that the unbeliever can only follow his sinful inclinations and makes the only decisions available to him (which really aren’t decisions). After reading Feinberg it seemed clear to me that, even though he did not use the word, he believed unbelievers acted on instinct alone.

I want to finish with a quote from D. R. Trethewie who is a Congregationalist pastor in Australia. Even though his theology is Reformed he does not accept Van Til’s view that unbelievers cannot understand truth:

Deceptive subtlety creeps into the picture here too. For Van Til allows reason to act as an instrument, “reason is necessary as a tool for the reception of revelation. About this point there can be little point for dispute.” Apologetics, page 47. But, as above, he denies reason the function of judgment, not only with respect to Scripture, but with regard to everything, “the unregenerate reason is entirely unqualified to judge.” Introduction to Systematic Theology, page 29. By rejecting for reason a capacity of competent judgment, he hardens his doctrine of its uselessness, despite his concession of an instrumental capacity.

It is certain that Van Til’s rejection of competence in fallen reason leaves him with a communication problem with unbelievers. To overcome this he suggests that the appeal of the Christian message should be made to what he calls “the sense of deity” in all men. Ibid. But in the sense intended, you don’t appeal to ideas! You appeal to the men themselves, and this implies their rational competence. Further, how do they have a valid sense of deity without at least some degree of sound judgment in their understandings?

A CRITIQUE OF CORNELIUS VAN TIL
By D. R. Trethewie of the Reforming and Congregational Church East Geelong
p. 14

Do I think that just because you are Reformed that you think of unbelievers as less than human? No, I don’t. I know better than to paint with such a broad brush.

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3 Comments on “Van Til’s Summary of His Apologetics Written for the Layman”


  1. Hi Glenn,

    I suppose you might find it ironic that you and I live in the same general vicinity that “Kees” (the name that Dr. Van Til’s friends affectionately called him) grew up in, you are much closer than I if you are in Northern Indiana. This irony notwithstanding, I believe you have misrepresented Dr. Van Til and the methodology of presuppositional apologetics.

    Let me start by pointing out that Van Til often used the terminology of idealism (Hegel) and imported new meanings to the terms. I do not believe that unbelievers are less human than believers, this is a bit of a caricature of reformed theology and one that does not do your post justice. You have a good grasp of some of the issues but I don’t believe this is a fair statement. I am going to read some of your other articles and will offer some counterpoints if you are interested in discussing further. I would appreciate a charitable and fruitful discussion on Presuppositional apologetics.

    Grace,

    BBG

  2. Glenn Says:

    Hi BBG,

    I have appended a postscript to my post above. I doubt it will satisfy you but I hope it clarifies my position a bit more.

    Please feel free to leave more comments.

    Glenn

  3. Dave Says:

    I had come to the same conclusion as you regarding the Calvinist view of the total depravity of the unbeliever. When I was reading and listening to a lot of Calvinist theology, in an effort to understand it, it was very discouraging to see this promoted as orthodox Christian doctrine.


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