Cornelius Van Til

by Dr. Phil Fernandes

A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved

Clark’s presuppositionalism could be called dogmatic presuppositionalism, 1 whereas Van Til utilized what could be called transcendental presuppositionalism. 2 Still, their thought systems had much in common.

REJECTION OF TRADITIONAL APOLOGETICS

Like Clark, Van Til was opposed to traditional methods of apologetics. Van Til taught that because of man’s Fall in the garden “every one of fallen man’s functions operates wrongly.” 3 Van Til stated that “on account of sin man is blind with respect to truth wherever truth appears.” 4 Van Til taught that without the correct view about God, man cannot have the correct view of himself and the world. 5

According to Van Til, the unsaved man is biased against God; he presupposes his own autonomy. 6 The unsaved man believes he can start with himself and find truth without aid from God. There is therefore no neutral ground between believers and nonbelievers. 7 The nonbeliever presupposes human autonomy; the believer presupposes the existence of God.

However, there is common ground: all mankind must live within God’s universe. 8 All men live in the real world of reason and moral values. Because of this common ground, believers can reason with nonbelievers. Still, with the absence of neutral ground, traditional apologetics cannot even get started. People are not unbiased observers who allow the facts to determine their world view. Instead, people interpret the facts by their preconceived world view (their presuppositions or biases). 9 Therefore, all apologetics must be by way of presupposition. 10

Van Til disagrees with Roman Catholicism for declaring the autonomy of human reason. Roman Catholicism “ascribes ultimacy or self-sufficiency to the mind of man.” 11 When Arminians, Evangelicals, and “less consistent” Calvinists defend the faith, they take the side of the Roman Church by assuming the mind of the unsaved man can of itself rise to a proper understanding of the Triune God. 12 Only a consistent Calvinistic position rightly denies the nonbeliever the ability to reason correctly (without faulty biases).

Van Til adds that traditional apologetics would never prove the existence of the Triune God of the Bible. Instead, traditional apologetics only proves the existence of a finite god. 13 Van Til states that Roman Catholicism would never desire to prove the existence of an infinite God who controls whatever comes to pass. The Roman Church, according to Van Til, wants to protect man’s self-sufficiency. 14

Van Til believed the root of the problem is found in the fact that all nonbelievers suppress their knowledge of the true God (Romans 1:18-22). Concerning the unsaved man, Van Til states that “deep down in his mind every man knows that he is a creature of God and responsible to God. Every man, at bottom, knows that he is a covenant-breaker. But every man acts as though this were not so.” 15 By using traditional apologetics, believers mistakenly assume that the unsaved man honestly needs proof that the God of the Bible exists. Instead, Christians should directly confront the nonbeliever by proclaiming the gospel message from the start. 16

According to Van Til, traditional arguments are also misguided in that they use inductive arguments for Christianity. Inductive arguments are probabilistic; they do not prove their conclusions with certainty. Therefore, traditional arguments give nonbelievers an excuse for rejecting the truth of Christianity. For if Christianity is only probably true, then it is also possibly false. Van Til believed that what was needed was not a probabilistic argument for Christianity, but an argument that proved the impossibility of the contrary. Van Til believed that his transcendental argument alone proved Christianity to be true with certainty. 17

The traditional arguments for God’s existence are therefore useless. The nonbeliever must be confronted with the gospel. Only in this direct approach will the believer find a point of contact with the nonbeliever. It should not be assumed that the nonbeliever is an honest, neutral seeker of truth. 18

REASONING BY PRESUPPOSITION

After rejecting traditional apologetics, Van Til unveils his own method of defending the faith. He states that “a truly Protestant apologetic must therefore make its beginning from the presupposition that the Triune God . . . speaks to him with absolute authority in Scripture.” 19 Now that believers stand on Christian foundations, they can see “the futility of reasoning on non-Christian foundations . . .” 20 Thus, rather than argue to the existence of the Triune God who has spoken to man through His Word, apologists must presuppose His existence.

Van Til sees no middle ground at this point. Two opposing presuppositions are competing for a person’s allegiance. The nonbeliever presupposes that he himself is the final or ultimate reference point in all human thought, but the believer rightly presupposes the final or ultimate reference point in human thought to be the Triune God who speaks to man through His infallible Word. 21 There is no neutral ground here.

If humans were really products of chance as the nonbeliever assumes is the case, then there would be no possibility of knowing the world, ourselves, or anything else. 22 But human thought and knowledge is possible because man is who the Bible declares him to be, a being created by God. 23

Van Til does engage in refuting the beliefs of others. For the sake of argument, believers may “place themselves with the unbeliever on his presupposition” in order to expose the contradictions which the nonbeliever holds. 24 However, even the law of noncontradiction is not presupposed by the Christian. It is only borrowed from the nonbeliever’s system of thought and used by the Christian to show the internal inconsistencies of the anti-Christian thought.

In Van Til’s apologetic system, only the “Triune God revealed in Scripture” is presupposed. 25 Not even nature or the laws of logic are presupposed. For man to start with himself rather than with God would be to deny his utter dependence on God. One cannot argue for Christianity. Instead, the validity of the gospel must be presupposed. However, Van Til will allow believers to utilize the presuppositions of nonbelievers in order to refute their views.

CIRCULAR REASONING

Cornelius Van Til stated that “all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning.” 26 By this he meant that “the starting-point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.” 27 In other words, when attempting to prove something, a person must first assume the conclusion to be true before proving it to be true. Van Til was claiming that every argument contains its conclusion in its initial premise.

Philosophers refer to circular reasoning as “begging the question.” It has long been considered an informal fallacy by logicians. To assume what you are attempting to prove has historically been considered to be an illegitimate form of argumentation. Most believers and nonbelievers agree on this point.

It is interesting that Van Til chooses to refer to “all reasoning” as circular. The point he is stressing is that we argue from our presuppositions, not to them. 28 Apart from regeneration by the Holy Spirit, a person will not presuppose the truth of Christianity. 29 Here, Van Til’s Calvinism is evident.

PARADOX

Van Til does not believe that the law of contradiction can be found in God’s being. 30 Whereas Gordon Clark viewed this law as an expression of God’s very being, Van Til considers this law a human limitation that does not apply to God. He believed that Clark, and those who agree with him, make God subject to a human law. Van Til warns that the rational man will allow his reason to sit in judgment over God’s Word. He will not allow the Bible to rule his life. 31

Van Til goes so far as to speak of God’s Word as seemingly contradicting itself. Though he states that God does not actually contradict Himself, he adds that God’s communication to man often appears contradictory to finite human minds. 32 But, Van Til cannot have it both ways. Either God cannot contradict Himself and the law of contradiction flows from His nature, or God can contradict Himself and the law is merely a human limitation.

If by paradox Van Til simply means an apparent contradiction, then even Clark would agree with his premise. Therefore, any criticism that Van Til made of Clark on this point would also apply to Van Til himself. However, if his usage of the term paradox does mean an actual contradiction, then nothing could be known of God.

For God could both love mankind and not love mankind at the same time and in the same sense. It seems that Van Til should have withdrawn his criticism of Clark in this area and admitted that the law of contradiction flows naturally from God’s being.

THE TRANSCENDENTAL ARGUMENT

Though Van Til rejected traditional apologetics, he was willing to do more than refute the nonbeliever’s world view. Van Til was willing to use one argument for the truth of Christianity. He believed it to be the only valid argument for the true God. He called this argument the transcendental argument.

The transcendental argument attempts to uncover the hidden presuppositions of the nonbeliever. These hidden presuppositions are the necessary preconditions for human thought. 33 Van Til argued that all human thought and moral judgments would be impossible if the Christian God did not exist. Van Til claimed that if God did not exist, then man would know nothing. Even for man to be conscious of his own existence presupposes a consciousness of God’s existence. When a nonbeliever argues against God’s existence, he must first presuppose God’s existence just to argue at all. 34

For the sake of argument, a believer can place himself within the unbeliever’s world view to show that the unbeliever has to presuppose the truth of Christianity just to raise an objection against Christianity. 35 Only Christianity justifies man’s ability to reason. Only Christianity gives meaning to life. All other world views lead to irrationality and chaos. 36 In fact, scientific induction makes no sense in a universe without God. For, only the Christian God guarantees the uniformity and order of nature necessary for scientists to argue from the particulars of nature to general conclusions about the world in which he lives. 37

COMPARISON WITH GORDON CLARK

When comparing the thought of Cornelius Van Til with that of Gordon Clark, one finds several points of agreement as well as several areas of disagreement. First, some points of agreement between these two men will be examined.

Both were serious and consistent Calvinists. Because they both believed that no one could freely choose Christ apart from the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work, direct attempts to persuade nonbelievers were thought to be counterproductive.

Both agreed that the gospel should be presupposed and not argued for. Van Til and Clark felt that to defend the truth of the gospel was to deny the Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of man. They both believed that man’s reason was damaged due to the Fall and that direct argumentation for the truth of Christianity would be useless. Still, both were willing to refute the beliefs of the nonbeliever and provide indirect confirmation for the truth of Christianity.

Both agreed that secular philosophy was a complete failure. Clark taught that all non-Christian philosophy eventually reduced to skepticism. Van Til believed that secular philosophy was futile since human reason was fallen. In his view, without presupposing the God of the Bible, no knowledge was attainable. However, Van Til believed that even nonbelievers presuppose God’s existence (though they suppress this truth) in order to find truth.

Both agreed that traditional apologetics is unbiblical and useless. Throughout their writings, Clark and Van Til belittled the traditional method of defending the faith. They believed that there was no neutral battle ground between the believer and nonbeliever where Christianity could be defended. The gospel was to be presupposed rather than defended. They saw no use for the classical arguments for God’s existence or for traditional usage of historical evidences for the Christian Faith.

Besides these points of agreement between Clark and Van Til, there were areas of disagreement. The following examples will illustrate this.

They disagreed about circular reasoning. Van Til believed that all reasoning is circular. The conclusion of one’s arguments can always be found in one’s premises. However, Clark was more rationalistic in his thinking. He considered circular reasoning a logical fallacy. Because of this, Clark dogmatically presupposed his first principle (the existence of the God of the Bible) and then deduced his beliefs from this first principle.

They disagreed about the status and use of the law of contradiction. Clark believed that the law of contradiction flowed from God’s nature. He taught that God is logic. Therefore, when he presupposed the Triune God who revealed Himself in the Bible, he also presupposed the law of contradiction. He would then use this law to destroy the belief systems of nonbelievers.

Van Til, however, believed this law to be a human limitation which Clark forced upon God. Van Til believed that Clark had subjected God to this law. Though Van Til would use this law to refute other belief systems, it was only because he chose to use the “enemy’s own ammunition to defeat the enemy in battle.” In fact, Clark’s view of the law of noncontradiction is probably what caused the widest gap between the thought of these two men. Clark presupposed the law of noncontradiction when doing apologetics. Van Til refused to do so.

STRENGTHS OF VAN TIL’S SYSTEM

In the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til there is much to be commended. The following examples will make this clear.

He stresses the sinfulness of man. Too often, defenders of the faith tend to de-emphasize the effects of the Fall on mankind. But this is not true of Van Til. If Van Til can be accused of any fault in this area, it would be overkill. For, due to his Calvinism, man is not free to accept Christ; regeneration precedes faith.

He stresses man’s suppression of God’s truth. Many apologists assume that the reason why nonbelievers do not come to Christ is merely an intellectual one. Van Til rightly shows that men willfully suppress whatever knowledge of the true God they have. Van Til is correct in his view that the problem is ultimately that of a moral choice rather than an intellectual one. God has proven his existence to all men through His visible creation (Romans 1:18-22). Therefore, man has no excuse for rejecting Him.

He stresses God’s work in salvation. Even non-Calvinists should commend Van Til for his focus on God’s work in salvation. Apart from God’s grace, no man would be saved. Traditional apologists often imply that they can lead people to Christ through argumentation alone. More emphasis is needed on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit concerning those to whom apologists witness. God can use traditional argumentation. Still, it is God who does the saving. The apologist can remove intellectual stumbling blocks to the faith, but only God can persuade one to turn to Christ.

He stresses the importance of faith over reason. Van Til emphasizes that one must believe in Christ to be saved. Without Christ, even the wisest man in the world will be eternally lost.

Though traditional apologists are right in that man can reason to the true faith (Van Til disagrees with this), once a person through reason finds the true faith, he must submit his reason to it.

He is willing to tear down the belief systems of those who oppose the gospel and use an indirect argument for Christianity. If it were not for this point, Van Til would probably be classified as a fideist. Though he rejects traditional apologetics (like the fideist), he is willing to refute non-Christian views and give one argument for his beliefs (unlike the fideist). Van Til’s transcendental argument goes beyond refuting non-Christian world views; it presents positive evidence for the Christian faith. Still, it does so in an indirect manner, rather than in the direct fashion found in traditional apologetics.

WEAKNESSES OF VAN TIL’S SYSTEM

Despite the many good things that could be said about Van Til’s apologetics, there are many weaknesses in his thought. A few of these weaknesses are mentioned below.

He denies that man has the ability to test revelation-claims. Given Van Til’s system, there seems to be no way to decide whether the Bible or the Koran is the Word of God. Yet the Bible frequently commands us to test the spirits, the prophets, and the messages they proclaim (1 Jn 4:1; Deut 18:20-22; Mt 7:15-23; Gal 1:8-9). 38 Also, God provided ample evidence for His revelation-claims by performing miracles through His spokesmen and by raising Jesus from the dead (Jn 20:30-31; 1 Cor 15:3-8). It seems that God has given even fallen man the ability to test revelation-claims. Whether or not man uses this ability wisely is another question. Again, Van Til’s Calvinism can be seen. For without regeneration by the Holy Spirit, no one will accept the Bible as God’s Word.

His view that all reasoning is circular. It is true that much of Van Til’s thought is circular. It is not true that all thought is circular. Even though all men have presuppositions, they can be tested just as scientific hypotheses are tested. One does not have to sneak one’s presuppositions into the premises of one’s arguments. Any argument that uses circular reasoning is fallacious, regardless of whether or not the conclusion is true.

His rejection of the law of noncontradiction being universally valid. Though Van Til claimed that he only used the law of noncontradiction for the sake of argument when he shared his faith with nonbelievers, he often criticized many of his colleagues for being inconsistent Calvinists. 39 Though Van Til implied that this law is a man-made principle, he diligently labored to keep his system free from contradictions. Van Til should have realized that there could be no thought or communication whatsoever without the law of contradiction. Even God cannot contradict Himself. And, since God is not subject to anything outside Himself, Clark was right to view this law as naturally flowing from God’s being.

Van Til’s transcendental argument is not the only valid argument for Christianity. Even John Frame, a former student of Van Til, saw problems with Van Til’s transcendental argument. 40 Although Frame recognized the worth of this argument for apologetics, he did not believe it was the only valid argument for Christianity.

First, Frame doubts that the transcendental argument could be persuasive without “the help of subsidiary arguments of a more traditional kind.” 41 Second, Frame thinks Van Til was wrong in his assertion that the traditional arguments proved something less than the God of the Bible. 42 Third, Frame believes that some traditional arguments often work despite the fact that the traditional apologist might wrongly assume that their arguments do not themselves presuppose a Christian world view. 43 Fourth, Frame doubts that the whole of the Christian faith can be established by a single argument which stands alone. 44 Fifth, if Van Til is right in his claim that the apologist must prove the whole biblical doctrine of God rather than just one or a few of His attributes, then the transcendental argument also fails. For the God of the Bible is more than the source of meaning, morality, and rationality. Even the transcendental argument must be supplemented by other arguments. 45 And, sixth, Frame believes that any argument (including the transcendental argument) can be rejected. Hence, further argumentation may be needed to defend the original argument. 46 Therefore, though the transcendental argument of Van Til may be a good argument for the God of the Bible, it is not the only good argument for the God of the Bible. The traditional arguments (cosmological, teleological, moral) for God’s existence may also be used by the apologist.

His rejection of traditional apologetics. Finally, Van Til was wrong to reject traditional apologetics. The Bible commands believers to defend the faith (1 Pt 3:15; Col 4:5-6). The apostles used historical evidences to lead others to Christ (1 Cor 15:3-8). Even Van Til admits that man suppresses the truth that God has given him in nature (Romans 1:18-22). If this is the case, then why shouldn’t apologists use traditional arguments to attempt to dislodge these truths from the nonbelievers’ subconscious mind? As the last chapter showed, traditional apologetics is on much more solid ground than the presuppositional apologetics of either Van Til or Clark would admit.

ENDNOTES

1 Gordon H. Clark, Three Types of Religious Philosophy, 115-142.

2 John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1994), 69-75.

3 Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976), 43.

4 Ibid., 42.

5 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1967), 73.

6 Ibid., 34.

7 Ibid., 298.

8 Ibid.

9 Gordon R. Lewis, 128.

10 Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 34, 99-105, 179-180, 195, 197.

11 Ibid., 90.

12 Ibid., 78-79.

13 Ibid., 77.

14 Ibid., 78.

15 Ibid., 92, 94, 231.

16 Ibid., 94.

17 Ibid., 103.

18 Ibid., 94.

19 Ibid., 99-105, 179-180, 195, 197.

20 Ibid., 180.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Gordon R. Lewis, 131.

26 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 101.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 299.

30 Ibid., 298.

31 Lewis, 133.

32 Ibid.

33 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 60, 150, 180, 298.

34 Frame, 69-75.

35 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 180.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Gordon R. Lewis, 144.

39 Ibid., 146.

40 Frame, 69-75.

41 Ibid., 71.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., 71-72.

44 Ibid., 72.

45 Ibid., 73.

46 Ibid.