Van Til’s argument for Trinitarian Theism

We recently began looking at some presuppositional arguments from Van Til, as examined by James Anderson. One of Van Til’s more interesting arguments is one for the existence of a God that is not unitarian. Theoretically the same argument could be made for a God that exists in multiple persons of any number, not just 3. But for now, we will treat Christianity as the only worldview that has the requisite ontological commitments.

The argument is basically this: at the base level, reality is either fundamentally unity, diversity, or both. Reality being fundamentally unity or fundamentally diversity would undermine our knowledge of reality. Therefore if we are to know anything about reality, we must hold that reality is fundamentally both. Only Christianity presents a worldview under which this is true, so Christianity is true.

Here is Van Til:

As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 23)

This is relatively easy to phrase in a more formal premise-conclusion form, so I won’t bother here. I am sure you can all reconstruct it.

What we must do now is justify the claim that under fundamental unity or under fundamental diversity, reality is not knowable.

 

Knowledge is impossible under diversity
Suppose that diversity is fundamental, and that every thing is distinct from every other thing. Knowledge therefore can only be had of individual things, and not categories. We can’t know things like “cats don’t like water” without all (or just most) cats having that property. But if there are no shared properties between objects, knowledge seems to be very difficult. We certainly want to affirm we have this kind of knowledge of classes and categories and groups, so we must deny that reality is fundamentally diverse.
Knowledge is impossible under unity
Under fundamental unity, where everything is at the base level the same kind of thing, knowledge seems impossible because there is nothing to differentiate one thing from another. We can only know that an object has a property A if there are some objects that do not have the property A. And perhaps more interestingly, if one knows something about an object, that it has a property A, it must be that we know it has a property A instead of property B. But under unity, there are no A and B, they are unified and identical. So between objects and within one object, knowledge depends on distinctions.
Isn’t it possible that fundamentally there are some things that are distinct and some that are similar?
Maybe. Suppose that this were the case, that fundamentally there are things of category A that are all the same and things of category B that are all the same (two kinds of monads) and they are entirely distinct from each other. We have distinction: Bs are not As. And we have unity. All As are As. This seems like it solves the problem of the unity/distinction tradeoff in the same way the Trinity does.
A possible monadology
Suppose that reality is fundamentally composed of monads, think of them like really small atoms for now. We cannot know one monad from another, other than by incidental properties like location or momentum (inasmuch as small objects have these). But these monads compose larger objects like chairs and cats. We can have knowledge about chairs and cats, they are real objects which share properties. They are unified and distinct in the right way. But they are composed of entirely unified monads. Where is the problem here? How would Van Til respond? I am not sure.
Conclusion
We are again seemingly left not totally convinced by Van Til. Maybe he is right that knowledge is impossible under fundamental unity and under fundamental diversity. But we don’t just know fundamentals, we know composites, and even if fundamentals are indistinguishable the composites aren’t.
More
Vern Poythress has done some interesting work expanding and explaining Van Til here, which I think is more promising than the work Van Til has done himself. But I am still not convinced that it is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of God.

Van Til on the Unity of Knowledge

In James Anderson’s 2005 paper, we are given an example of an argument that Van Til makes for the existence of God. Specifically, this is an argument that God is a necessary precondition for human beings to have any knowledge about anything. Van Til is hailed in Reformed circles as an excellent apologist, and his brand of presuppositionalist apologetics is very popular and is practised often at the exclusion of other schools of thought. However, I have noticed that very rarely does anyone ever actually present any of Van Til’s arguments. Perhaps today we shall see why. It seems to me that no-one actually reads Van Til, or at least tries to pull any arguments out of him.

Here are two relevant quotes from Van Til that Anderson gives us, which give us the argument we will examine now:

This modern view is based on the assumption that man is the ultimate reference point in his own predication. When, therefore, man cannot know everything, it follows that nothing can be known. All things being related, all things must be exhaustively known or nothing can be known. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 163)

Here too every non-Christian epistemology may be distinguished from Christian epistemology in that it is only Christian epistemology that does not set before itself the ideal of comprehensive knowledge for man. The reason for this is that it holds that comprehensive knowledge is found only in God. It is true that there must be comprehensive knowledge somewhere if there is to be any true knowledge anywhere but this comprehensive knowledge need  not and cannot be in us; it must be in God (The Defense of the Faith, 41)

We, modern analytical thinkers, prefer to have arguments in a formal premise-conclusion style, so Anderson helpfully creates one:

  1. If no one has comprehensive knowledge of the universe, then no one can have any knowledge of the universe.
  2. Only God could have comprehensive knowledge of the universe.
  3. We have some knowledge of the universe.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is valid, and I think for the moment the atheist can grant premise 2. Any being which has comprehensive knowledge of the universe is probably worth being called God. The difficulty is of course with premise 1.

Van Til seems to have a justification like this in mind: we cannot know if there exists out there some fact which would demonstrate all of our previously held beliefs false. But knowing that, we cannot be justified in holding any of our beliefs. If we aren’t justified in holding our beliefs, we have no knowledge. So there must be some way of us being justified in believing that there is no such problematic unknown fact. And the only way for that to be the case is if God designed us with mental faculties which aim at truth in the right way, and intends for us to believe truth. Without God “holding our hand”, we can’t have any knowledge.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is any good. The mere possibility that we might be wrong is not sufficient to remove justification. We “know” many things about which it is conceivably possible, however unlikely, that we might be wrong. Knowledge is not certain or proven true belief, but only a warranted true belief, and warrant doesn’t need to be certain.

One might attempt to justify the premise further, by using a kind of pessimistic meta-induction. For almost everything that almost all humans have ever believed, it turned out there was some fact out there which proved it wrong. So chances are, there is also some fact out there that proves us wrong. So it’s not only possible that we are wrong about everything we believe, it is now quite likely. And if that is the case, we probably don’t have knowledge.

But this goes too far. Because if that is the case, if theists attempt to make that rhetorical move, then it seems like God isn’t there holding our hand. In this case, God has not designed our mental faculties in the right way, because we are so often wrong. By attempting to prove that knowledge is impossible without God, we’ve also proven that it’s impossible with God.

Van Til has some more arguments that we will examine, but this was the simplest one. Have I missed something? Is the argument stronger than I make it out to be?

Honeymoon Reading

I have just returned from my honeymoon, and so of course the first question anyone has for me is: what did you read while you were away?

So here is a list:

 

I am sure my wife had a great time.

‘What’s the Time?’ Is a Christian Question

‘What’s the Time?’ Is a Christian Question

A poet or prophet or politician who holds an eschatological vision of history believes that history isn’t random or haphazard but has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

While agreeing with apologists on the importance of knowing and critiquing the worldview of those we’re trying to reach, Wax maintains that our critiques lack an understanding of the eschatological underpinnings of modern and postmodern worldviews that have drawn people away from the gospel.

In addition to championing reason over revelation and logical thinking over religious devotion, the Enlightenment ushered the West into a world that looks forward not to the promised New Jerusalem, but to a man-made utopia. In order to emphasize the coming light, Enlightenment eschatology demonizes the past as dark, ignorant, and backward.

In keeping with the progressivism of the 18th-century Enlightenment, the 20th-century sexual revolution also heralded the decay of revelation-based religion and the rise of reason-based science. However, in keeping with its 19th-century Romantic roots, the sexual revolution sought a new kind of mysticism that promised to free the disenchanted modern from the materialism and naturalism of the dour Age of Reason. Forsaking both repressive “medieval” moral codes and any form of scientism that would reduce man to a cog in the machine, the sexual revolution sought “transcendence through self-discovery and expression” (140).

As for the third rival worldview, consumerism, Wax effectively exposes it is as the most subtle and insidious of the three. If, for the architects of the sexual revolution, marriage is merely a vehicle for aiding our search for sexual self-fulfillment and expression, then for the high priests of consumerism, it’s nothing more than a commodity without intrinsic value.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday Links 3/11/18

 

Note that I am getting married on Friday, and will be on my honeymoon for a few weeks. So don’t expect much activity from me. Also sorry about an earlier version of this post where the link to the Oppy page was broken.

Acts 17: Paul’s Apologetic Methodology

My church is currently preaching through Acts, and the week before last we covered Acts 17. I think this is quite an important passage for aspiring apologists, as we are given a record of how Paul engaged with pagan philosophers in the preaching of the Gospel. Clearly what’s given to us is a summary of his time in the aeropagus, and I think it is worthwhile spending some time “filling in the gaps” so to speak: trying to reconstruct some of the flow of his no doubt detailed and nuanced argument from the summary that the Spirit has delivered to us via Luke.

Here is the section in question, Acts 17:22-31:

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Here are the stages of argumentation and rhetoric that I see present here:

  1. Altar to an unknown god. Paul appeals to the place of God in their own worldview. In a sense, they already know there is a God.
  2. Paul proclaims that there is a God who created and sustains all things, something like a cosmological argument (which had already been invented and used)
  3. Paul proclaims that God created all people specifically, and appeals to existing Greek belief here
  4. Paul argues that it cannot be any of the Greek Gods that did this. If God created us, then we cannot create temples and idols for that God.
  5. This belief was unknown, but now God is doing something new, and calling all to repent and believe
  6. God will judge all those who refuse and all those who sin via one Man
  7. God proves Himself through the resurrection of this Man

 

Calvin’s commentaries are helpful here. Calvin rightly points out that quoting scripture at the Greeks would be useless, since they do not accept it. Instead, Paul proves the nature of God through natural theology, through reasoning about the world and about God. To all those who say that this is not a valid apologetic methodology, it seems that Paul does make use of it here. This is the second time we’ve seen Paul do something like this, he also does so in Romans 1.

In fact, two of Paul’s primary arguments are also two of my primary arguments. First, proving via reason that there is a creator God who desires worship. This is precisely what we do with the various cosmological arguments we deploy. Second, appealing to the resurrection of Jesus to demonstrate that God is in some way connected with Christ. Paul uses it to demonstrate that it is via Christ that God will judge the world. Today, we use it to demonstrate that Christianity is the correct monotheistic practice, since cosmological arguments could equally demonstrate the truth of other monotheistic practices. But Paul shows us that the use of the resurrection as an apologetic argument is valid.

There is of course far more in this passage here that the modern apologist can learn from. I just wanted to point out the use of these two arguments, and encourage us to think carefully about Paul has engaged in his apologetics.

 

Contingency Argument Stage 2: Perfection-based Argument

In our posts on Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument, we have what Rasmussen identifies as two stages. Stage 1 argues for the existence of some necessary explanation of the conjunctive contingent fact. Stage 2 argues that this necessary explanation has all the properties we normally attribute to God, such as omniscience or omnipotence or moral perfection.

Here I will present an alternative to some of our stage 2 arguments. Here we will argue that the necessary explanation of the conjunctive fact (called “God” from now on, since that’s a lot shorter. We will retroactively justify it) holds all properties perfectly. Perfection here meaning something like “completely” or “fully”. Not necessarily in the sense of moral perfection.

Suppose for contradiction that there is some perfection that God lacks. That is, suppose there is some property that it is possible to have in a perfect sense, which God does not have perfectly. Either God holds the property in an imperfect capacity, or God does not hold that property at all.

Is this imperfection contingent or necessary? If it is contingent, then the necessary explanation of contingent things holds a property contingently. But if it holds a property contingently, it is not necessary. So God cannot hold any properties contingently. Therefore if God has an imperfection, it must have this imperfection necessarily.

But suppose it does have this imperfection necessarily. That is, suppose that necessarily God holds a property that God could have held perfectly. This seems incoherent: if God necessarily lacks this property, then that property wasn’t a perfection in the first place since it couldn’t have been held perfectly.

Therefore it seems that God must hold every perfection. For every property that can be fully or completely or perfectly held, God holds it perfectly.

Precisely which properties does this argument work for? It is not obvious that it works for all of them. Further work must be done on demonstrating that knowledge and power, for example, are actually perfections (though I think this is relatively obvious). We must also respond to the objection that there might be symmetrical “anti-perfections”, such as being perfectly powerless or perfectly ignorant. We certainly want to avoid claiming that God holds these.

More worryingly, perhaps evil or malevolence is in a technical sense a “perfection”. I think we can argue against this, but it will have to wait for another post. For now, this is another method of approaching stage 2 of contingency arguments.

TGC: Now is the Time for Evangelism (in Australia)

Rory Shiner thinks that 2018 is the time for evangelism. I agree.

Talk to student workers in AFES, for example. They are the ones on the front line, sharing the gospel with the very generation who have been raised on intersectionality and gender fluidity and the whole bit. And yet, again and again, from campus to campus, these student workers are saying that this is the best and the freshest evangelistic environment they’ve seen in their life time.

People are so post-Christian that the gospel is fresh and interesting. They know so little that there’s less prejudice. And if they have an impression of Christians at all, it’s so outrageously negative that all you have to do is offer them a cup of tea and not punch them in the face and you seem like Mother Theresa.

Think about this, and it makes plenty of sense. People in the last 60 years or so have felt, in rejecting Christianity, that it is old and outdated and childish. That they already understand it, and can dismiss it as false. But now they might still have some of that attitude, but in reality they know nothing about Christianity. It’s easy to get someone intellectually curious about Christianity now, or surprise them with how little they know. And this leads to critical engagement. And critical engagement with Christianity leads to Christians.

The harvest is great, but the workers are few. Don’t be afraid or discouraged. Go on the offensive, fight the good fight, and win souls for Christ.

Guest Post: Is Jesus Jehovah?

For many of us, the deity of Christ is simply a given. We hear Him making claims that no human being could possibly make. He claims to be the only true way (John 14:6) and gate (John 10:9) into God’s kingdom. He claims to be the Lord of the sabbath (Matthew 12:8) and the fulfillment of all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). These are no mere figures of speech, and we have to take them seriously.

If those claims aren’t enough, the New Testament epistles testify to the deity of Christ. Trinitarian creeds are tucked into the very fabric of Peter (1 Peter 1:2) and Paul (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). What’s more, the word “God” (Greek theos) is used of Jesus explicitly.

But this little Greek word is the source of more controversy than perhaps any other in the New Testament, especially when dealing with Jehova’s Witnesses and those in the LDS church. With lengthy exegetical gymnastics, those who deny the deity of Christ usually bring prepared answers to respond to the famous texts like John 1, Colossians 1 and 2, and so on. They claim that “[Jesus] is not the one-and-only God, but is a god, or divine being”. Under such statements, theos becomes a lost pointer to the deity of Christ in the bible. In order to respond to these views, we must develop a more fundamental apologetic. The real question is, “Did the Biblical authors consider Jesus to be Jehovah God himself?” If we can show that the name of the one true God, “Jehovah”, can be biblically applied to Christ, then the centre of the debate shifts away from prepared answers and towards edifying dialogue. We will now examine a few texts to answer this question.

Who did Isaiah see?

In the most well-known chapter of Isaiah, chapter 6, the prophet is given a vision of God in his temple.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty. The Earth is full of his glory!'”

Isaiah sees what could only be described as the very throne of God himself, and the one seated on it. He sees the Lord (“Jehovah” in the New World Translation) lifted up, and sitting in GLORY. There is a particular emphasis on the glory, splendour and majesty of God, and so Isaiah is undone: “Woe to me, I am as good as dead”. After Isaiah’s sins are forgiven and atoned for, the focus shifts to his prophetic commission:

“Then I heard the voice of Jehovah saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said: ‘Here I am! Send me!’ And he replied, ‘Go, and say to this people: ‘You will hear again and again, But you will not understand; You will see again and again, But you will not get any knowledge””

After Isaiah sees the Lord, he is commissioned to preach to an unrepentant nation, who (we are told) will “hear but never understand”. In other words, the chapter can be summarised like this: Isaiah sees the glory of Jehovah, and is commissioned to speak for him amongst an unbelieving people.

Fast-forward several hundred years, and Jesus is preaching to a hard-hearted crowd in Jerusalem, the capital city of faithless Israel. In John 12:37, we are told that Jesus had performed many signs, and yet they still didn’t believe him. We are told that this took place in order to fulfil the words of Isaiah: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

So John directly connects this event with the prophecy of Isaiah 6. But the next statement is absolutely critical:

“These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him. Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing him”.

Let that soak in for a minute. Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory, and spoke of Him. Who is “he”? There can be no doubt in the text. The one who was preaching, the one who the pharisees were rejecting, the one about whom the whole story is written (John 20:31), is the one Isaiah saw and spoke of. Remember our summary of Isaiah 6? Isaiah sees Jehovah and is commissioned to speak. Here in John 12, the apostle is clearly (though implicitly) saying “Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus, lofty and lifted up”. For John, there is no doubt. Jesus is Jehovah himself.

Who laid the foundations of the earth?

Psalm 102 is a beautiful prayer of confession from a helpless and languishing saint. He offers himself to God in a desperate time of weakness and trial. As an antidote to his distress, the psalmist remembers the character and Sovereignty of God, his refuge:

“My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations… In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain;  they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”

How beautiful! But we must not ignore the hidden gold nugget of theology shining through the lyrics. Let us be clear: this is a song to Jehovah. His name is used several times explicitly (v.1, 12, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22), and surely Jehovah alone is the craftsman of the heavens.

But the book of Hebrews has more to say. In the first chapter, the author intends to show that Jesus is no mere angel “For to which of the angels did he ever say ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’?”

Jesus is not just an angel. He is the divine Son of God. Once again, verses 9-12 give the kicker:

“But of the Son he says… “You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the works of Your hands; They will perish, but You remain; And they all will become old like a garment, And like a mantle You will roll them up; Like a garment they will also be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end.”

In other words, Psalm 102 is directly applied to Jesus. God the Father said these things “Of the Son”. It was Jesus who laid the foundation of the world. In the mind of the author of Hebrews, Jesus is Jehovah himself, God the Son.

Who ascended?

Let’s take another Psalm. In Psalm 68, David reflects on the saving characteristics of God, with a particular emphasis on the redemptive acts of God in Israel’s history (like the exodus from Egypt):

“When you, God, went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel.”

Verse 18 describes none other than Jehovah:

“When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious—that you, Lord [Jehovah] God, might dwell there.”

That is, God led forth a procession of captive Israelites to the promised land, and to his sanctuary.

Paul, however, adds another layer to this exceptional verse. To the Ephesians, Paul writes:

“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions. He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Notice who gives the gifts. We have each been given a gift as Christ apportioned it. Paul then goes on the quote Psalm 68:18 (a verse which itself contains the name of Jehovah) and applies it directly to Christ. Not only does he apply it to Christ, but he actually makes an argument. He argues that the reference to “ascension” can only make sense if it refers to the resurrection of Christ. ‘What else could it mean?’ he asks. And he is right. The truth is, Psalm 68:18 is a verse about Jesus. If our theology is to align with Paul’s, then we should be able to read Psalm 68:18, and indeed the whole Psalm, and see Jesus. The Psalm is about Christ, including the word “Jehovah”.

So we have John, Paul and the author of Hebrews all referring, however subtly, to Jesus as Jehovah. Many such references exist in the New Testament, and we cannot simply pass over them lightly. Before we bring them to the debating scene, let us soak ourselves in the rich truth that a crucified Galilean was none other than our Creator. The one who made a way for us on the cross was the same one who touched the lips of Isaiah, and led the Israelites through the desert. He spoke with Moses, He was the delight of David, and He was fully revealed on the dark day of Calvary.