Christianity and Van Tillianism – Mathison

I regularly get questioned and criticised for my disagreement with presuppositional apologetics. The school of thought is quite popular among Reformed theologians, however, in my opinion, it is both novel (a red flag when it comes to theology) and insubstantial.

A recent thorough criticism comes from Keith A. Mathison on Tabletalk. I think many of these are good points, and I will briefly summarise here. This is largely a criticism of presuppositionalism as Van Til originally developed it, and therefore centres on problems with Van Til’s theology itself. But I will echo Mathison in pointing out that this is not at all an attack on Van Til’s character, nor a denial of all the brilliant work that he did do. We are all mature enough here to criticise an aspect of someone’s thought without throwing that person out of the Kingdom, or levelling accusations at their character.

First, Mathison points out that Van Til’s works are often light on exegesis, and so for a man who strongly emphasized the authority of scripture in apologetics (an emphasis we would all do well to heed!) this indicates a weakness in thought.

Second, Mathison claims that Van Til’s work is often hard to understand. This is partially due to him adopting and then modifying some technical terms from the secular philosophy of his day (terms like “limiting concept” and “concrete universal” from the popular Idealism that existed at the time), and partially due to his inconsistency. You can see this inconsistency on the question of whether unbelievers can know anything; at some points, he affirms that they can and at other times he denies that they can.

Third, Van Til at some points seems to espouse a heterodox view of the Trinity: “one person in three persons”. However Nicean Trinitarianism is “one being, three persons”, and Van Til is at best equivocating on “person” and at worst logically inconsistent. This is not surprising since Van Til rejects the epistemology of those who came to the Nicean creed.

Fourth, Van Til often misunderstands historical philosophers and theologians. Mathison gives examples of where Van Til interprets Augustine and Aquinas as saying the opposite of what they actually mean to say. Mathison claims he even gets Calvin wrong.

Fifth, Mathison levels the accusation that Van Til has a syncretic Christianity, with elements of the above-mentioned Idealism. Given that Van Til accuses mainstream Christian apologetics and much theology of being a syncretism of Christianity and Greek philosophy, this accusation is quite damning. If Aquinas is the bastard child of Christ and Aristotle, then Van Til is the descendant of Christ and Kant., or perhaps Christ and Hegel.

Sixth, Mathison claims that Van Til’s arguments surrounding the need to presuppose God and scripture are actually inconsistent, and his complaints of people presupposing reasons do not actually land.

Seventh and finally, Mathison criticises Van Til’s rejection of Reformed natural theology. Calvin certainly accepted the use of natural theology (see his commentary on Acts 17), and natural theology has been part of mainstream Reformed thought for as long as Reformed thought has existed.

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?