THE PROBLEMS OF PRESUPPOSITIONALISM
Focal Point One — Inconsistencies
The dilemma for Van Til begins in his theology. As already stated, Van Til’s apologetic methodology is anchored firmly in Calvinist theology, with his thought launching from Abraham Kuyper; moreover, his philosophy is amalgamated with that of Herman Dooyeweerd. The “philosophical roots of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy go deeply into . . . Immanuel Kant . . . .”
It is clear Van Til’s synthesized apologetic is a legacy handed down from those that went before. Van Til himself writes, “Christianity offers the triune God, the absolute personality containing all the attributes enumerated as the God in whom we believe. This . . . is the foundation of everything else we hold dear. . . . For us everything else depends for its meaning upon this sort of God” (italics mine). This sounds noble, but is it true to reality? Does everything else categorically depend on understanding the Triune God? Surely, a man may know some truth about God, even though he cannot know all truth about God.
The Sublime and The Secular
It follows then that this becomes a matter of scale. A non-Christian man, who knows nothing about God, can certainly learn something about God, just as a Christian man who knows something can always learn more. In fact, a man can become a Christian (i.e. reap the rewards of Jesus’ salvific work) and have no understanding of the Trinity or even hold to the infallibility, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture. The following narrative is instructive and goes to this point:
A young man was invited by his sister to attend a meeting. The speaker was a total stranger to him. He spoke on John 3:16 but “more powerful than what he said was his demeanor, and his heart came through his words. . . . [and] I found myself conspicuously alone walking to the front at his invitation to trust Jesus as my Lord and Savior. . . . I grasp only a portion of what he said. None of these things meant anything to me. To this vocabulary I was a stranger” (italics mine).
In a country with over 300 million gods, Ravi Zacharias relates his initial commitment to Jesus Christ and how it was made with only the feeblest understanding. He had no clue of God’s attributes or the fact of a triune God.
Zacharias goes on to explain how only a few months later, after a failed attempt at suicide as he recuperated in the hospital, someone came and read John 14:19 to him, “Because I live, you also will live.” Zacharias states, “. . . again I was not sure of all that it meant. I knew it meant more than just biological life” (italics mine).
This is exemplar of the error in Van Til’s belief system he so profusely champions. Zacharias knew almost nothing of the 330 million plus gods of his culture, let alone the Triune God of the Bible or Jesus Christ. Zacharias came to Christ without any a priori, empirical, or epistemological foundation to know anything about God, let alone anything about the doctrine of the Trinity. Now a major question rears its ugly head, “Who is going to break the news to Ravi Zacharias that he will have to shut down Ravi Zacharias International Ministries?”
The example above deals with a religious context, if you will. It seems to be the case that Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Van Til, by their own admission that “everything else depends for its meaning upon this sort of God” actually mean that what they are talking about is meant to be applied to all areas of life, to all parts of man’s endeavors, corporeal, as well as spiritual.
Many great scientific contributions have been made by men who had no knowledge of the Christian God, let alone the Triune God. Michael Behe writes, “understanding the how something works is not the same as understanding how it came to be. For example, the motions of the planets in the solar system can be predicted with tremendous accuracy; however, the origin of the solar system . . . is still controversial.” Therefore, a man may understand there is a
Designer behind the stars and know nothing of Jesus Christ or even understand this Designer to be the Triune God of Christianity.
D. James Kennedy proffers this cognate, but secular example:
I read about a modern astronomer who looked through one of our newest and largest telescopes and saw galaxies that had never been seen before, nebulae that thrilled the heart and mind, stars uncharted, and when he stepped back, he said, “How magnificent, how glorious, how wondrous is the mind of man to build such a telescope!” That, my friends, is the faith known as humanism.
This man probably has no concept of the Trinitarian God of creation. Nonetheless, the man is able to discover great things. Granted he credits the brilliance of man, not the wisdom of God. However, according to Van Til’s presuppositionalism, only by God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and in Scripture is there proper ground for all thinking about reason, fact and human experience. Nevertheless, this humanistic scientist is able to think about reason, and facts, and experience this discovery without specific metaphysical knowledge of God. Additionally, according to Van Til’s Presuppositionalism, to posit any epistemic common ground between a Christian and non-Christian that the Christian may then use to argue for God’s existence effectively denies the God you are arguing for!
God In A Box
It also seems to be the case that Van Til’s approach puts God in a box. It assumes that God can only work effectually when this presupposed, synthetic, methodology is used. In reality that deflates God’s sovereignty, and inflates man’s depravity to such a high state man can secure no certain epistemology, even of the laws of logic. Richard Howe affirms this:
Since logic is necessary even to argue against logic itself, this shows that logic is transcendentally necessary. But somehow, Van Til thinks this is the case with a full-blown Trinitarian Christian theism. While it is clear to me how logic is transcendentally necessary for there to be an argument against God, it is not clear to me how God is transcendentally necessary for an argument against God.
In this milieu, we cannot afford to obfuscate the evangelistic and apologetic waters with a shoddy methodology based on a Kantian concept leading to internally inconsistent, flawed theology. Granted, God can still use anything to His glory. God does will to work through His people, but we have a responsibility to strive to maximize the Christian capital He provides for us. God gave His Best for us. God gave us a mind and abilities. We need to give our best for His glory—He expects no less.
Inconsistent Interpretation—In the Beginning
Van Til also had a marked tendency to take liberties with the biblical text to support his presuppositional paradigm. The following statements on The Fall are like a bad recipe comprising poor exegesis, blended with eisegesis as necessary, and baked together with events as if they occurred in a vacuum and voila—we have a pastry that looks good but is mostly full of hot air. Exemplar of this is Van Til’s comments on Adam and Eve’s encounter with Satan and their subsequent fall:
Satan told them how free he had become since declaring his independence of God. . . . Adam saw Satan’s point. “You are right, Satan, I must first decide whether such a God as often speaks to us (1) knows what the ‘good’ for us is, (2) controls history so that he can determine what will happen if we disobey him, and (3) has the right to demand obedience from us. After I decide these issues, and if the answer is ‘yes,’ then I shall obey him. Certainly not before.”
But by taking to himself the right to decide these issues, Adam had already decided them-in the negative (italics mine). This entire imaginary dialogue is preposterous! Van Til has the temerity here to ascribe to Adam this invented “three point thought process” and he posits all of this as if this event happened in a vacuum. He is clearly reading meaning into the biblical text (eisegesis) that simply is not there. None of the major versions of the Bible known has any of this dialogue or includes any commentary from Satan about his “independence” from God.
Van Til also seemingly discounts the fact that no sin or evil have been introduced into creation up to this point, as our Primary Progenitors are yet clad in perfect innocence. Adam knows God created all and must know unquestionably and unequivocally God is good given that very special and intimate relationship Adam had as the only created man “with” God as His creator. The Prime Pair have literally been walking with God in the Garden for an undisclosed period of time; days, months, perhaps years; we do not know.
Van Til’s endeavor at spouting unsubstantiated suppositions to support his pre-suppositions is a perilous practice not in keeping with quality biblical scholarship.
. Ibid., 204.
. The word “synthesis” is, “the process of combining different ideas, influences, or objects into a new whole . . . [or] a new unified whole resulting from the combination of different ideas, influences, or objects.” NB; this combining of different ideas and influence is the fault line of the Van Tillian theology and his apologetic paradigm (Italics mine).
. Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 39.
. Adapted from Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 14.
. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (New York: Touchstone, 1998), ix.
. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, “The Bible and Science.” Whistleblower, December 2006, 17.
. Richard Howe, 2007. Modified except from Chapter three: Objections to Theistic Arguments in General. PhD diss.., University of Arkansas.
. Cornelius Van Til, My Credo, from his Festschrift, “Jerusalem and Athens.” CFRT website, http://www.reformed.org/apologetics/My_Credo_van_til.html (accessed June 15, 2007).