Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) taught apologetics (the defence of the faith) at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, from 1929 until his retirement in 1972. He was a major figure in the development of the seminary and its influence in promoting the Reformed faith.
He pioneered a new way of doing apologetics, which has come to be known as ‘presuppositionalism’, as distinct from the classical ‘evidentialist’ approach. The presuppositional method requires us to presuppose the truth of God’s Word from start to finish. Evidentialism, on the other hand, seeks to demonstrate the truth of Christianity by arguing from the historical and literary evidence.
The late Dr Greg Bahnsen was a former student of Van Til, and is best known for his development of theonomy or ‘Christian reconstructionism’. He has rendered a signal service by authoring this well-produced volume. Happily, there is no mention of theonomy in the book, even though the presuppositional apologetic is one of the cornerstones of this particular way of applying biblical law today.
The need for such a book is explained by Bahnsen in terms of the difficulty most people have in coming to grips with Van Til’s thought. Van Til was a prolific writer, but he never produced a major work setting forth his apologetics in a systematic manner. Furthermore, his writing style was often obscure and meandering, and he assumed that his readers were familiar with specialised philosophical concepts and language.
The result has been that Van Til is often misunderstood and misrepresented by friend and foe alike. ‘This book is an organised digest of what [he] taught throughout his various publications about the underlying approach to apologetics’ (from the preface).
Bahnsen’s analysis and comments are interspersed (in a different typeface) with appropriate illustrative readings from Van Til’s works, thus making identification easy. Not only are the method and content of Van Til’s apologetic explained, but there is also much interaction with his critics, and a voluminous body of footnotes pointing to areas for further study.
This is not a book for the general reader, but rather for someone interested in academic apologetics. Van Til has been widely influential in Reformed circles this century, especially in North America. Apart from attracting a large following to his own method, his work has provoked a revival of classical evidentialism, and also stimulated such figures as Francis Schaeffer to develop a verificational approach.
His critics have accused him variously of rationalism, ‘fideism’ (having no place for reason) and even of being unbiblical. Bahnsen gives a very sympathetic account of Van Til’s position. For a more critical review from within the presuppositionalist camp, I would recommend John Frame’s book, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his Thought (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers). For a more hostile critique from the evidentialist camp, see Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defence, by Sproul, Gerstner and Lindsley (Grand Rapids: Academie Books).
Bahnsen begins by isolating what he sees as the main principle behind Van Til’s method. It is that ‘the apologist must presuppose the truth of God’s word from start to finish in his apologetic witness’ (p.2). Presuppositions are basic assumptions which form a wide-ranging foundational perspective, in terms of which everything else is evaluated. Only the Christian world-view, based on the presupposition of the truth of God’s Word, provides the philosophical preconditions necessary for man’s reasoning and knowledge in any field whatsoever. Any position contrary to the Christian one must be seen as philosophically untenable.
The first three chapters form a brief introduction to the thought, life and method of Van Til. Epistemology (the theory of knowledge, or ‘how we know’) is crucial. The only sufficient basis for epistemology is the self-attesting Word of God. Two long chapters, four and five, are devoted to setting forth Van Til’s epistemology and its relationship to apologetics.
Chapter six analyses ‘the psychological complexities of unbelief’. In chapter seven the presuppositional apologetic argument is set forth in detail. In the following chapter this is contrasted with other methods, and the final chapter sets out the practical application of the method. It is impossible in a brief review to do justice to the broad sweep of Van Til’s thought. I will mention just a few of the main points of his system.
Faith and unbelief
Van Til sees a complete antithesis between the believer and the unbeliever at every point. The unbeliever knows that God exists (Romans 1) but suppresses this knowledge. Thus the unbeliever can have no true knowledge, because he denies the only adequate basis for that knowledge. Van Til even says that even in such matters as mathematics or weighing and measuring, the unbeliever has no true knowledge.
He then goes on to make a distinction between the basic presuppositions of the unbeliever and his actual operating system. If he were completely consistent with his own human presuppositions, he could know nothing. But he lives on the borrowed capital of Christian theism, and thus can know truth in a wide field of human endeavour.
Van Til has a place for common grace as a restraining influence on the unbeliever, but not as a positive influence on him (p. 424 ff.). This appears to be too limited a view of common grace. Because of common grace, says Van Til, the absolute antithesis between the believer and the unbeliever is not obvious in everyday life. However, the antithesis must be constantly borne in mind and maintained in our apologetic and evangelistic activity.
No appeal to reason
What then is our point of contact with the unbeliever? Van Til rejects autonomous human reason as a point of contact. Man, as man, is obligated to presuppose the truth of Christian theism. His reason is fallen (the noetic effects of sin). So it is not only pointless but wrong to present the evidence for Christian theism to him and appeal to his reason (as an evidentialist would do).
The evidence is sufficient, but the unbeliever’s mind is at enmity with God. Also, there is no neutral ground between the Christian and the non-Christian. Is there, then, any hope of a point of contact? Van Til sees one in the innate knowledge of God which Paul speaks of in Romans 1:19-21 and in the image of God in man (p. 438 ff.), as well as in the fact that we share the same world.
Thus the practical effects of the antithesis between the believer and the unbeliever are mitigated. Here is where Van Til comes in for much criticism. In a lengthy footnote on page 413 Bahnsen criticises Frame for overstating Van Til’s view of the antithesis. Van Til himself says the matter is ‘awkward to articulate’!
Trying out the Christian world-view
Van Til accepted natural revelation (or general revelation), but not natural theology (which works only on the basis of general revelation plus man’s unaided reason). He was often criticised for having no place for the evidences for Christianity in his apologetics. However, he did have a place for the traditional theistic proofs and other Christian evidences; he only insisted that they be formulated and presented in a presuppositional way (p. 635). He referred to this as a ‘transcendental argument’. He did not approve of presenting Christian theism as an hypothesis to be verified (‘verificationism’). He was, however, in favour of inviting the unbeliever to take on the Christian world-view, and its presuppositions, and try them out, in an ad hominem form of argument (p. 468).
Thus in practice his method is not so far removed from a traditional approach. But the thinking behind it is entirely different. Another point in common is that all evangelical and Reformed apologists would agree that argument alone will not convert anyone. It is only the regenerating work of God’s Spirit that will change people’s hearts.
Van Til’s treatment of the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God has given rise to criticism. This came to a head in the 1940s in a controversy in his denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. At issue were the views of Gordon Clark, a former student of Van Til and a presuppositionalist who tended towards rationalism.
Van Til taught that man’s knowledge was ‘analogical’ of God’s knowledge. He stressed that there was a qualitative difference between God’s knowledge and ours, not merely a quantitative one. This led him perilously close to teaching that our knowledge is of a completely different kind from God’s knowledge, but he did not go as far as that. Bahnsen is happy to endorse Frame’s critique of the Van Til/Clark controversy, which finds fault with both of them (p. 675).
Van Til also had a liking for paradox, which led some to criticise him. He often appears to be too theoretical and more engaged in critical interaction with other Christians than with unbelievers.
What are Van Til’s lasting contributions to apologetics? Surely, that his insistence on the importance of world-view and presuppositions, and on the radical antithesis between the Christian and the non-Christian, have alerted us to important truths. Also, his attempt to be rigorous in his critique of unbelieving philosophy, and utterly biblical in every area of thought and life, stimulates us to question our own approach.
Here he was following in the Reformed tradition of Abraham Kuyper of Holland and B. B. Warfield of Princeton, though he differed from them both at various points. These differences are helpfully summarised and explained by Bahnsen on pages 596-609.
Whether we go all the way with Van Til’s method or not, we have much to learn from him. This book will remain the standard guide to his thought for years to come.