The Kantian Connection
In an address to the Evangelical Theological Society (1998), later published in the Christian Apologetics Journal, Geisler asserts:
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) . . . awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by David Hume, . . . to agnosticism. . . . argued that God is unknowable (even by revelation). . . [italics mine]. He insisted . . . that we cannot know reality in itself (the noumenal realm) but only what appears to us (the phenomena). Thus, . . . science is possible . . . but metaphysics is not possible. Further, Kant bifurcated the observable realm of fact and the realm of value. This dichotomy has been disastrous for biblical studies . . . [leading] to a denial of the . . . existence, of factual and historical record in Scripture and a stress on the moral and religious dimensions that have dominated liberal theology.
Van Til, rails at other apologetic systems because they allegedly only bear out a probable existence of the triune God and not Van Til’s purported positive existence of God. Yet he refused to see this Kantian thought embedded in his philosophy not only denied absolute truth, but argues “God is unknowable even by revelation.” The incongruity does not end there.
Recall at the outset of this paper, under the section “Why Apologetics,” the Presuppositional Apologists contend “that God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and in Scripture is the proper ground for all thinking about reason, fact, and human experience. Yet in Van Til’s apologetics, he incorporates Kantian thought which denies God is knowable by revelation!
Thinking Kant’s Thoughts After Him
With Kant’s transcendental thought, as a core premise from which Van Til derives his own presuppositionalism he cannot help but veer off into mutated, erroneous epistemological assertions. Geisler spotlights this cognitive dissonance in Van Til’s thinking in the following paragraph:
A transcendental argument is neither deductive nor inductive. It is more reductive, arguing back to the necessary preconditions of something being the case. . . . Some apologists have made a minimal use of the transcendental argument. Van Til made maximal use of it, claiming that the whole Christian system is based on it. . . . Van Til’s thought is rooted in Herman Dooyeweerd, who got it from Kant. Once Kant’s agnosticism is accepted, first principles, such as the principle of causality cannot be applied to the real world. This occasions the necessity of finding some other way to get at reality. The transcendental realist . . . argues that this can be done in the same way that Kant posited the existence of a priori forms and categories of sense and the mind (italics mine).
A cavernous disconnect exists here! Agnosticism, by definition, is the belief that it is impossible to know whether or not God exists. In spite of this unabashed Kantian influence, Van Til has the audacity to declare his revelational, presuppositionalism superior because he alleges that it establishes the certainty of God, not just his probability. Yet in the next breath, Van Til indicts Classical or traditional apologetics as, “compromising its [revelations] clarity. Both the general and special revelation of God are said to be unclear to the point that man may say only that God’s existence is ‘probable’ (emphasis mine).” Cornelius, you cannot have it both ways!
Furthermore, man’s history has sufficiently demonstrated that if, as Kant posits, we cannot know reality, and there is no absolute truth, then the ilk of Dooyeweerd and Van Til fuse all of this into or onto biblical theology, the resulting “synthesized” Christian theology must cultivate liberalism and error. It is liberal theology and biblical error which births heretical sects and cults.
Evangelical Christians know the Word of God must be our criterion for absolute truth and the standard-bearer for right theology. It follows that a correct theology is critical for a correct apologetic; incorrect theology begets an errant apologetic. Linking Kant’s relativistic concept of truth to the Absolute Truth coupled with his denial of first principles and causality is simply untenable at best—heretical at worst. That horse just will not run. Methodologies may diverge but, the theology behind the apologetic must be accurate and faithful to the infallible, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God.
The fact of the matter is that the transcendental argument amounts to circular reasoning. The presuppositionalists continually insists that the starting point for their paradigm must be presupposed a priori and it must be the triune God on which everything else depends on for meaning—yet that is also the ending point of apologetics. It is called leading a person to Christ. That is truth! But this flawed Kantian epistemology denies that one can know absolute truth.
No matter, Van Til strives to “blend” Kant’s relativism with the absolute Truth—the Word of God, obdurately ignoring the result. That is like mixing water with the gas in your tank. The result is a vehicle that “ain’t gonna get you where you want to go.”
Neither will Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics effectively knock down the barriers blocking the truth of the Gospel. Another error is made because presuppositionalism presumes its first principle. While the presuppositionalists can only claim the transcendental principle, the Classical apologist looks to a varied pallet of first principles, comprising analogy, causality, and noncontradiction
Van Til even draws fire from those in his own Reformed camp. An article from the Calvin Theological Journal states:
Van Til’s transcendental apologetic casts itself as the mother of epistemological arguments. Among many questions that immediately present themselves, however, one in particular clamors for an answer: What exactly is the argument [emphasis mine]? We apparently know its conclusion, but what are its premises and its inferences – and how are those premises to be defended? . . . Van Til never formally states his transcendental argument at any point in his published works – at least not in any detailed way.
Focal Point Five–Reality Without Reason
Throughout his Christian Apologetics,Van Til attacks the Roman Catholic Church and their link to Greek thought. The author, while not professing any scholarship in philosophy, believes this is due to Van Til’s bias against Aquinas. Therefore, to Van Til, all Thomas Aquinas wrote on natural theology, faith, and reason, etcetera is erroneous. This bias also extends to Aristotle, because Aquinas retains Aristotelian thought in his philosophy and in part because he was Roman Catholic. Circularly, because he was a “Romanist,” as Van Til referred to Catholics, the entire Roman Catholic system is in error and Aquinas errs because he is a Romanist. Hence, Van Til’s resultant aversion between faith and reason as an apologetic methodology.
Proponents of Classical apologetics see no such conflict. Rather, reason based on reality, rightly employed and utilized, blasts through the veil of objections, oppositions, and hostility; both real and fabricated, and illuminates the truth leading to faith; not only a theistic faith, but faith in the God of Christianity.
Aquinas wrote that, “creation reveals one God and his essential attributes, but not the Trinity . . . or the way of salvation.” Van Til, indeed all presuppositionalists, continually maintain that, “chief of these presuppositions is the idea of God as expressed in the doctrine of the ontological Trinity.” This dichotomy is obvious and seemingly unbreachable to the presuppositionalist.
We have previously enumerated the problems Van Til had by his rejection of general revelation as the bulwark of natural theology; his non-rational notion that there is a prerational starting point for rational beings; and his confusion between the autonomy of reason and the ultimacy of reason. All of this is from a refusal to correctly apprehend and understand what
Aquinas was actually expressing, which was no more or no less than what Scripture teaches; namely, that God has revealed himself in creation and endowed man with an a priori knowledge of Himself (Rom. 1:19, 20). Only Special Revelation, the Word of God, reveals the salvific path (John 14: 6), the ontological Triune God (Luke 3:21,22), and Christian doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16).
As mentioned earlier there is a certain overlapping that takes place so some of this has been addressed in other sections. Thomism posits five ways to demonstrate God’s existence. Suffice to say, the confluence of these cognate arguments is that there is a “Prime Cause,” behind the finite, temporal world; an Unmoved Mover, a First Cause, a Necessary and Most Perfect Being, and a Designer.
Arguably, Aquinas’ beliefs line up with Scripture, to a much greater degree than the puzzling amalgamation of thought proffered by Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Van Til, et al. Aquinas rightly postulates that, “although God’s existence is provable by reason, sin obscures our ability to know (Summa Theologica, 2a2ae. 2, 4) and so belief (not proof) that God exists is necessary for most persons (Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.4, 3-5). Human reason, however, is never the basis for faith in God. Demanding reasons for belief in God actually lessens the merit of faith (Summa Theologica, 2a2ae. 2, 10). Believers, nonetheless, should reason about and for their faith.”
The presuppositionalists condemn Aquinas and revile the Classical position for using “first principles and only showing God is probable. The marriage to Kantian thought is the primary cause for this—not logic, nor reason, which they seemingly deplore. Nevertheless, logic, reason, and first principles are undeniable and inescapable in the real world as, once again, Geisler affirms:
Knowing something for certain is possible by means of first principles. First principles are known by way of inclination before they are known by cognition. These include: (1) the principle of identity (being is being); (2) the principle of noncontradiction (being is not nonbeing); (3) the principle of excluded middle (either being or nonbeing); (4) the principle of causality (nonbeing cannot cause being; and (5) the principle of finality (every being acts for an end). By these and other first principles, the mind can attain knowledge of reality-even some certain knowledge. Once the terms are properly understood, these first principles are self-evident and, thus, undeniable (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a. 17, 3, ad2).
Revelational versus Reason—A Metapologetic Mêlée
All Epistolary New Testament texts were aimed at defusing error. The apostle Paul was kept exceptionally busy firing corrective missives to the early Church. Paul, a brilliant and trained scholar, used the best argument for the job at hand; never “presupposing” any assumed starting point of a triune God. Unfortunately, as time raced past the epicenter of Christianity’s genesis, the errors and heresies the apostles battled resurfaced. Subsequently throughout history we witness the births of aberrant sects, cults, and religions. Hence, the dire need in our milieu for effectual apologetic systems and those who will put them to use.
The intent of the multifaceted thesis put forth at the beginning of this discourse was to illuminate the flawed Van Tillian presuppositional apologetic as being of minimal value at best. Firstly, by demonstrating it is theologically, internally inconsistent. Second, its archaic methodology is not effective in our postmodern milieu. Third, it is rarely, if ever, effective due to its intrinsic need to first defend itself, not the Gospel. Fourth, it has been shown that Dooyeweerd’s influence resulted in Van Til embracing Kant’s transcendental argument; adding more inconsistencies to his metapologetic methodology. Fifth, the Reformed movement’s and Van Til’s aversion, and misunderstanding of Thomistic thought and refusal to grasp undeniable truths of logic and first principles are the final nails in presuppositional apologetic coffin.
William Lane Craig properly affirms the key underlying apologetic question, “‘how do I know Christianity is true?’ . . . the key to answering this question is ‘to distinguish between knowing Christianity to be true and showing Christianity to be true.’. . . We know [as Christians] Christianity is true primarily by the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. We show Christianity is true by demonstrating that it is systematically consistent.”
There it is. That is our simple mandate. To reveal to a lost world Christianity is systematically consistent; to move them one-step closer to the True Jesus, the Christ of Scripture. We need to be effective witnesses. That means being effective apologists, not merely evangelists. The time to act is now. Jesus proclaims, “‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22: 20).
. Norman Geisler, 1999. Beware of philosophy: a warning to biblical scholars. Christian Apologetics Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 5.
. Geisler, BECA, 729.
. Van Til, My Credo, 13.
. Truth is that which conforms to its object or to reality. Kant however, posited that the known object conforms to the knower. In other words, it had to conform to the mind of the knower.
. James Anderson, 2005. If Knowledge Then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til. Calvin Theological Journal, 40:1, 15.
. Geisler, BECA, 725.
. Van Til, CA, 57.
. Geisler, BECA. 725.
. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1984), 31.