FABRICATING THE FRAMEWORK
The thesis put forth in this document is that the foundational pillars of Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics are flawed, as is the apologetic methodology. The reasons are multifaceted.
Firstly, the presuppositional paradigm is theologically, internally inconsistent. Secondly, the core methodology and hypotheses are archaic. In other words, the presuppositional paradigm comes from the Strong Calvinists’ reformed theology down to Van Til as described above. Additionally, it is still mired in the era of modernism from whence it came. Thirdly, Presuppositionalists never actually “defend the Christian faith—rather, they end up only defending presuppositional methodology.” Fourth, the Presuppositionalist uses the Kantian transcendental argument, a bizarre brand of spiritualized, circular reasoning. They do not deny they are using a circular argument. Rather, they believe it elevates them “above the argument.” Lastly and maybe most importantly is their acute misunderstanding and aversion to anything that smacks of Thomism. Thus, they deny the tenets of logic and first principles in exchange for a convoluted Kantian philosophy that always bubbles just under the surface of Presuppositionalism.
Understand that each of these critical points do not necessarily stand on their own legs. There is a certain amount of functional overlap between them. For example, many of the internal inconsistencies originate from Van Til’s adoption of Dooyeweerd’s, Kantian saturated, transcendental argument, as well as his cult-like Strong Calvinist position as the only way to “know” the triune God of Scripture.
A definition of a logical presupposition is“to make something necessary if a particular thing is to be shown to be true or false.” It also means to assume something in advance; that is to believe that a particular thing is true before there is any proof of it. Van Til’s numerous a priori hypotheses or antecedent clauses are foundational to the resultant theology that drives his apologetic. Norman Geisler asserts that the presuppositional (revelational) apologetics system,
. . . defends Christianity from the departure point of certain basic presuppositions. . . . [the presuppositional apologist] presupposes the truth of Christianity. . . . [and] insists that one must begin with presuppositions or worldviews. . . . [with] revelational Presuppositionalism, one must begin any rational understanding of truth by presupposing the truth of the Christian faith. . . . that the Triune God has revealed Himself in Holy Scriptures” (italics mine).
That is an apt description and the genesis for the Van Tillian apologetic argument. The aim of this treatise is on the previously enumerated errors that are fostered in the Van Tillian presuppositional paradigm. The guns will be targeted from a Classical apologetics position, not from the fideist, evidentialist, or other apologetic paradigms. At this point, it is important to look at Kuyper’s and Dooyeweerd’s philosophy since they are the wellspring of thought from which Van Til draws.
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)
“Kuyper uses the case of us accepting someone’s identification to illustrate the necessity of receiving God’s revelation by faith in order to gain knowledge of God. . . . ‘No one is able to disclose the inner life of a man except that man himself. Not observation, but revelation, is [how] knowledge of the human person must come . . .’” This is part of the credo Van Til also embraces.
While in the strictest sense Kuyper may be right, nevertheless his analogy is flawed. You may or may not want to take what a man says about himself (revelation) as true. We acknowledge God’s revelation is always true. Nevertheless, it is also the case that you can tell a good deal about some people by observation.
Look, for instance, at the so-called “Hollywood movie stars”; an extreme example perhaps, but they make the point. They tell us who they really are by what I call the “Five D’s”: Deviancy, Divorces, Drink, Drugs, and Dumbness. All of this is readily available in various media. With a little reflection, the point becomes apparent without taking up time or space with further elaboration. As we reflect on news reports on these “special personalities,” all that we have observed about them becomes clear.
Kuyper makes the case that only through revelation can man know God and any attempts on our part to know God through our defiled nature is fruitless. This must presuppose the revelation comes from God. Kuyper himself writes:
The entire gold-mine [sic] of religion lies in the self-revelation of this central power to the subject, and [man] has no other means than faith by which to appropriate to itself the gold from this mine. He who has no certainty in himself on the ground of this faith, about some point or other in religion, can never be made certain by demonstration or argument. . . . you may produce outward religiousness, but never religion of the heart [italics mine].
This is a basic tenet in presuppositionalism parroted by Van Til. One might ask, “What is a ‘religion of the heart’”? Is that like the emotive “burning in the bosom” touted by Mormons? It does not seem that Kuyper is talking about special revelation (i.e. biblical revelation), but an evocative, “mystical” revelational experience. Indeed this entire statement smacks of religious doublespeak.
Boa and Bowman explain that Kuyper endeavors to balance out two ideas:
On the one hand, following Calvin and . . . Hodge, . . . on the other hand Kuyper insists that this natural theology does the non-Christian no good [italics mine]; indeed, its development in non-Christian religion is completely unhelpful as a support for the Christian faith. . . . Kuyper stressed that in spite of common grace, there is an antithesis between the . . . Christians and non-Christians . . . what both Christians and non-Christians have typically failed to understand . . . is that all belief and knowledge, even in matters of science, and even for people who consider themselves non-religious, are at root religious and depend on faith [italics mine]. . . .
Lest we misunderstand Kuyper here, he does not mean that Christianity develops natural theology by rationally thinking out its implications [italics mine]. What he means is that in Christianity natural theology has been supernaturally developed by the miracle of special revelation.
These are elements Van Til utilized in his “synthesized” metapologetic. However, they should not be characterized as the only elements Van Til “borrowed” from Kuyper; rather, they are pieces of the puzzle that makes up Van Til’s conundrum. It seems to be the case then that Kuyper (1) “insists that there is a natural knowledge (general revelation) of God”—a “natural theology, yet (2) it does the non-Christian no good, ‘even though non-religious people are at root religious.’” Apparently, the “antithesis” is of such magnitude between Christians and non-Christians because for believers, natural theology is supernaturally enhanced, but not for the non-Christian.
Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977)
Dooyeweerd’s defining work was De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee; the second edition, in English, was entitled A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. “The goal of the book is to develop what Dooyeweerd called a transcendental criticism of theoretical thought, an idea that comes from Immanuel Kant, . . . putting the matter as simply as possible, . . . a transcendental critique seeks to show what are necessary preconditions or presuppositions of all knowledge” (italics mine).
This transcendental critique is a key piece of the puzzle utilized by Van Til and inserted into his so-called synthesis making up his presuppositional apologetics. Jacob Klapwijk develops this idea further:
The form of argument follows Kant’s transcendental reduction, whereby one posits the necessary conditions of thought and actions. The transcendental critique differs from transcendent criticism. The latter is purely external, not getting at the internal root of the issue. . . . The transcendental critique . . . “zeroes in on the phenomena of science itself, retracing from the inside out, as it were, the train of thought which science follows, so as to finally arrive at its point of origin; the hidden religious starting point of all scientific activity.”
The transcendental critique seeks out “antithesis,” since its task is to conflict with all human based thought structures. A law of human knowledge is that the truth is gained only in the conflict of opinion. This internal criticism opposes the absolute starting point of an unregenerate heart and “tries to open a thinker’s eyes to” (italics mine).
This then, is the flawed foundation upon which Van Til builds his presuppositional apologetic. Incidentally, Dooyeweerd considers these “pretheoretical presuppositions and motivations” as being religious in nature. Unfortunately, this foundation contains too much sand and not enough cement for a concrete base. By employing this reduction, an “a priori wall” is built, limiting one’s thinking to what has already been “legitimized”. As Geisler expressed above, this transcendental critique is antithetical; really to reason itself.
It follows that the fallacies in Dooyeweerd’s philosophy convey to Van Til’s as well. What ensues is list of Dooyeweerd’s fallacies of thought and inconsistencies of reason. The inconsistencies and errors listed are really of both Dooyeweerd and Van Til:
- They “rejected the adequacy of general revelation as a grounds for building a natural theology. . . . this is directly contrary to the claim of the Scriptures (Rom. 1:19-20;2:12) which affirm that general revelation is ‘clearly perceived’ and fallen humanity stands condemned for not responding to it.”
- Their “stress on sovereignty is an implied volunteerism. . . . For unchangeable rules of reason [are] common to God and man, but rooted in God’s nature.”
- They confuse the “autonomy and the ultimacy of reason” and do not understand “that reason can be an ultimate standard for truth.”
- They are not consistent with a transcendental approach, but rather root [their] epistemology in a phenomenological starting point, by positing on the one hand that human beings can allegedly view creation only with the help of God and from God’s point of view, yet on the other hand “claim there is a prescientific starting point whereby man can interpret creation.”
- This leads them to a “non-rational” starting point, which is self-defeating. “The truth is that reason is inescapable. There is no prerational starting point for rational beings.”
- They deny the “ultimacy of the laws of logic.” According to Dooyeweerd and Van Til, “logic as we know it applies only to the created world. But how then can we think about Godwithout these laws of thought? Certainly, truth cannot be found in contradictory statements about God.”
These are the seeds planted by Dooyeweerd, cultivated and nurtured by Van Til’s synthesized fertilizer that truly blossomed under the care and attention of the late Greg Bahnson. This is also where Van Til’s theology and apologetics begin to go wrong. There are yet other internal flaws as well, (e.g. cavalier practices exgeting Scripture). Van Til becomes inconsistent in his theology and quirky in his metapologetics. To be fair Dooyeweerd’s philosophy had numerous positive facets as well, however this paper’s thrust is pointing out of his inconsistencies and linking these to Van Til as a counterpoint to Classical apologetics.
In our next segment I will address the problems of Presuppositionalism and its inconsistencies.
. Richard Howe, “Apologetics Systems” (lecture, Southern Evangelical Seminary, Matthews, NC, June, 2007).
. Geisler, BECA, 607.
. Boa and Bowman, 235.
. Ibid., 233, 35.
. Boa and Bowman, 238.
. J. Klapwijk, “Dooyeweerd’s Christian Philosophy: Antithesis and Critique,” RJ, March, 1980, 22.
. Ibid., 205, 206.
. Ibid., 205.
. Phenomenology is the philosophical investigation and description of conscious experience in all its varieties without reference to the question of whether what is experienced is objectively real.
. Ibid., 206.