Me and Van Til

So let us begin with the ungrammatical title. Why would I put it like that? It is not really proper, unless worked into a sentence like “‘Me and Van Til’ is not really a proper title for a blog post.” So maybe I am being grammatical accidentially, like the boy who was dozing in the back row of English class when the teacher said to him, “Billy, give me examples of two pronouns.” He lurched to his feet, bewildered, and said, “Who? Me?” “Very good,” she said, albeit reluctantly. Maybe I was just looking for an arresting title. Maybe it is just clickbait.

Where was I? Since I have been writing a bit on natural law, and have identified myself as a Van Tilian presuppositionalist, I thought a little intellectual autobiography might be in order, and I will begin with an anecdote that illustrates the jumble in my head.

One of the first books I wrote (in the early nineties) was called Persuasions, and contained a series of conversations between a character called Evangelist and various unbelievers. It was a dream of “reason meeting unbelief.” This was pre-Internet, and at the time, conservative Presbyterians and recons got a lot of their books from a catalog company called Great Christian Books, previously named Puritan and Reformed Books. I sent a copy of the book to them, and a gent named Walt Hibbard running the catalog was kind enough to pick up my book and include it among his offerings. This was a big deal for me, and so I was naturally excited to get my copy of the catalog. When it arrived, I hunted down the place where it was, and read the copy that had been written for my book. That copy said something like “this small book is a fine introductory treatment of Van Tilian apologetics.” I stared at it, flummoxed. “It is?” I thought.

Yikes. I had never read Van Til, and here I was in print, outrunning my own headlights, with a published introduction to his thought. Story of my life. So quick, I ordered The Defense of the Faith, read it, and was relieved to discover that I really liked it. The only part of the book I didn’t really cotton to was the section where Van Til takes C.S. Lewis to task. The reason for this is that I had learned my presuppositionalism from Lewis. And therein lies a tale.

I had been steeped in Lewis growing up, but it was mostly his fiction. I first encountered Narnia in the late fifties, as my dad would read to us regularly. But when I was in high school, I began to read Lewis’s theology and apologetics. The first chapters of Miracles contains one of the finest presuppositional demolition jobs on naturalism that you can find anywhere.

After high school, I went in the Navy, and during my hitch, I began to read Francis Schaeffer. When I got out in 1975, I came to the University of Idaho as a philosophy major. During my time as a freshman I read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which I tied around my waist as my lifeline of sanity. Lewis and Chesterton were my bulwarks during the second half of the seventies, with more than a little Schaeffer mixed in. I would not be a Calvinist for another decade.

We started Logos School in the very early eighties, and one of our founding commitments was to teach “all subjects as parts of an integrated whole, with Scripture at the center.” I don’t know what possessed us to do that. We were evangelical Arminian Kuyperians, whatever the heck that might be. But during the eighties that followed, the only people seriously attempting to integrate the authority of Scripture with everything else were the reconstructionists. So since we were building a school that wanted to relate Scripture to everything we were teaching, I began to read the recons.

I was put off by some of it, but was enormously benefited by a most of it. Through the eighties, I read a boatload of Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen. Now this was not possible to do without coming away with a “yay Van Til” sentiment, even though I had not yet read Van Til himself. North in particular was fond of saying that reconstructionism was based on Van Til, postmillenialism, theonomy, and Calvinism. When I started reading, I wasn’t any of those things, but I was strongly attracted to the application of Scripture to all of life. Whatever else was going to go down, that was good, and it seemed to me that Van Til had something to do with it.

But I still had a Lewisian bedrock. In The Discarded Image, Lewis shows that the medieval mindset was slow to set their favorite authors against one another. Their fundamental impulse was to harmonize guys they liked wherever possible, and this was an impulse I fully shared (and still share). When I finally read Van Til with his purist “no neutrality” approach, I saw at once that this was fundamentally consistent with some of the basic things I had already learned from Lewis. If you read a book like Bahnsen’s Always Ready, you should be able to see how easy it should be to incorporate writers like Lewis and Chesterton into a presuppositional framework. Chesterton, for example, insisted on reasoning from first principles because a first principle is a “thing with which thought has to start, since it must start with something.” Amen, and let us now turn to the book of Romans.

I confess this might strike some as quite an intellectual hodge podge. Fine, but it is a charleshodge/paulinepodge. And we are all part of fallen world, and we all have our own jumbles going to some degree. Van Til wasn’t postmillennial, for example, and Chesterton poped.

I identify with Van Til because of his insistence on no neutrality anywhere. I do so because of his insistence on a regenerate mind. I do so because he reasoned from Scripture, not to it. And he clearly saw that those who refused to reason from the triune God of Scripture were doing so anyway. So I appreciate him very much, and have profited in enormous ways from his legacy.

At the same time, my bedrock is Lewis and my ambition is to learn to write like a Protestant Chesterton. Given this background, you might think my ambition would be to write like an evangelical Lewis, but that is so far out of reach as to be risible. I just finished reading Lewis’ Studies in Words, and that man’s learning was staggering. Wanting to be like him is like wanting to put Jupiter in your pocket in order to take it home. But Chesterton is way out of my league in quite a different way. He was a journalist, and could slap and dash with the best of them, and if he were alive today he would have a high traffic blog — ballandcross.com or something. But whenever I get going good, and my prose is bedizened with metaphors and shrouded in paradoxical purples, my hope is that I might sometimes remind people of him. And since I am a Puritan, the annoyance factor for our Catholic friends would be another satisfactory plus.

Here I sit. I can do no other.

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50 comments on “Me and Van Til

  1. Had you ever read Studies in Words before?

  2. Wait, so you read Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen in the 80′s, then wrote Persuasions prior to reading any actual Van Til?

  3. Seth, I had started it many years ago, but just recently finished it. And yes, you pieced the chronology right.

  4. Doug, have you found Plantinga helpful in the area of philosophy, worldview, and apologetics issues?

  5. Really helpful post!
    I don’t know much about the who debate that you’ve been blogging about (natural revelation) but this post was very helpful!
    Also, last paragraph, 6th sentence, I think the word “would” was supposed to be “were”. If not I’m missing something :-)

  6. Doug, I have a question for you and I’d like an honest answer. Is there any book that is written in such a way that someone who doesn’t have a vocabulary much greater than the average joe can make sense of all this natural law/revelational/van till mumbo jumbo. I’m willing to do some work to understand this but if I have to spend more time reading a dictionary than the actual book it’s probably not going to happen. If the answer is no then that’s fine just let me know either way please.

  7. I still have my free copy of “Persuations”!

  8. It worked for Janis Joplin.

  9. J,
     
    Not Pastor Wilson, and I look forward to his reply, but I have a question. Just who exactly is “Average Joe”, and what is Joe’s literacy? Now I would grant that we are not talking about speaking in a “series of clicks and pops”, but most areas of human endeavor have a set of terms to describe and identify their distinctions. A box wrench is not a 3/8″ drive ratchet. If I ask for a rongeur, a ratchet will not do. One can drive a nail with a ball/peen hammer, but a finish or framing hammer does work better. What common denominator is sufficient for Joe?

  10. J, are you asking if there is a book about natural law that isn’t so theologically technical with its language that one does not have to be a pastor or theologian in order to understand it? Just trying to clarify.

  11. @ J: On the other hand, just think how how much it would expand your vocabulary!

    You might start with Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”

  12. Lewis and Chesterton are the two great voices in my mind, especially Chesterton. I have been scared away from Van Til at least twice by an overbearing presuppositionalist friend, but I have also been told that I am a presuppositionalist. From listening to my presuppositionally overbearing friend talk and argue with other people, I have come to loathe the very word “presupposition”.

  13. A retired English teacher friend of mine enjoyed you joke very much. Also, I learned that “who” and “me” are pronouns (:
     
     

  14. J, You might want to try stuff by James Sire, such as “Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All”?
    Doug, I turned my back on Cornelius Van Til a long time ago, I think his presuppositionalism is a mis-statement of how science actually functions. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments on this post. The reflections are refreshing and humanizing. I’d love to learn more about your disagreements with the recons and the theonomists. If you only ever do battle with the people on your left, we may become confused about the nature of your alliance with the people on your right.

  15. RFB – You caught me generalizing. I thought that was ok on this blog after all that bit about the millennials ;-). But since your going to pin me down on what an “average joe” is I suppose this might be the best answer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Average_Joe  . 
    Brad – That is exactly what I am asking.
    Arwen – I would love to do that, but my time is limited and so I must limit my pursuits for the present. I suppose an argument could be made for the pursuit of a better vocabulary being more important than the pursuit of understanding the debate over natural law, but I’m not sure my interest gene would be persuaded by that argument.
    Michael – Thank you for the suggestion. I will check into it.

  16. I wonder how many non-Christians have been intellectually persuaded of the truth claims of Christianity via the means of the straight VanTil argument verses those of Chesterton, Lewis, and Lee Strobel, etc. I have found that, while Van Tillian reasoning is invincible to defeaters, as a means of apologetic persuasion for the unbeliever, it almost never works. 
    Millions of Christians have had their intellectual blinders removed by means of arguments along the more classical lines. (teleological, cosmological, etc.)
    Lewis’ primary argument about the transcendence of the moral law and Chesterton’s brilliant and creative take that Christianity is the practical “key that fits the lock of life” are also commonly sited as powerful sources of persuasion out of unbelief.
    But, as far as I have seen, Van Til seems to be best at strengthening belief that is already there. (Which is wonderful, of course!)
    Anybody out there brought from unbelief to faith via Van Tillian apologetics? I’d like to hear your story.
     

  17. I completely agree with this statement by Pastor Wilson: 

    “I identify with Van Til because of his insistence on no neutrality anywhere.  I do so because of his insistence on a regenerate mind.  I do so because he reasoned from Scripture, not to it.  And he clearly saw that those who refused to reason from the triune God of Scripture were doing so anyway.”
     
    I’m a big proponent of presuppositional apologetics.  I also think the classic work on the subject is “The Defense of the Faith” by Cornelius Van Til.  I believe that evidential apologetics is vitally important, but is limited, since it can only lead us to Theism; whereas it cannot lead us to believe in such doctrines as the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture.  For these doctrines, we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth to us, since they are wholly beyond anything we can reason or deduce on our own.  This is because, ultimately, reason and experience alone (i.e. natural revelation) come up short.  Therefore, we need Scripture (i.e. special revelation) combined with the Holy Spirit in order to truly grasp the God of the Bible.  While natural revelation can certainly point us to a divine Creator, it proves inadequate for grasping the nature and character of God as revealed in Scripture (e.g. His triune nature, His sovereignty, holiness, love, etc.).  In other words, we may deduce that God exists by our reason and by our senses, but we cannot know Him personally except by divine revelation.  We receive this revelation only through the work of divine grace and faith, as God intervenes in our lives and accommodates Himself toward us.  Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14 that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 

  18. My view is that we must first “believe” in order to understand, not the other way around.  As I’ve stated in prior comments on this blog, I’m a firm believer in a “faith seeking understanding” approach to apologetics.  Therefore, I think the classical arguments of evidential apologetics are 100% effective for someone who is “already” a believer; whereas they cannot be 100% effective for someone who is not a believer.  They will come up short.  And they have to come up short, otherwise mere “general revelation” or “natural revelation” could bring someone from spiritual death into spiritual life (i.e. to “saving” faith).  I firmly do not believe this is what the Bible teaches.  In Romans chapter 1, the primary purpose of general revelation is to warn non-believers that they are “without excuse” if they deny God.  That’s where general revelation ends and where special revelation must intervene.   

  19. I also want to echo what Jay said, that “while Van Tillian reasoning is invincible to defeaters, as a means of apologetic persuasion for the unbeliever, it almost never works.”  Of course it doesn’t work, because unbelievers do not have the Holy Spirit illuminating the truth to them.  And I would also agree that Chesterton, Lewis, and Strobel have superlative arguments in the classical sense.  But again, without the Holy Spirit, they will come up short.  Once one becomes a believer, though, the classical arguments are quite effective in bolstering the confidence and reasonableness of the Christian faith.

  20. Evolutionary law dictates you shall next lose your postmodernism tail and then adopt an episcopal ecclesiology that would comfort GK.  One can hope.

  21. Oops — meant postmillenial tail

  22. One final point I want to make.  As I stated prior, evidential apologetics can only take us so far.  It cannot (by itself) bring one from spiritual death into spiritual life.  However, evidential apologetics is still useful (and vital) for two reasons: 1) for solidifying the intellectual foundation for those already in the community of faith by demonstrating the “reasonableness” of our faith; and 2) for making the persuasive case to non-believers that they are “without excuse” if they deny God, due to the “general revelation” that they already have since they are created in God’s image.  This, I believe, is where our “natural law” and natural/general revelation arguments are helpful and valuable, especially to non-believers who deny or minimize natural law.  

  23. While we can benefit much from Van Til, the difficulty with a pure presuppositional approach is that our presuppositions are just that: presuppositions. We do not logically and rationally choose them. When God regenerates us, part of turning our heart of stone into a heart of flesh involves changing our presuppositions. No amount of arguing will change an atheist’s or agnostic’s presuppositions about the non-existence or unknowable existence of God.
     
     
    And Doug is spot on about the medieval to attempt reconcile authors rather than pitting them against each other. Because all truth is God’s truth and God is Triune, there is ultimately only a single thread of truth. Yet that truth may be expressed in different manners even as the Father, Son, and Spirit are simultaneously one yet different.

  24. What Dan said.

  25. When autonomous reasoning competes with the law of God (law of reasoning thus incorporated into the law of God written upon the human heart via creation in the imago dei, twisted under the fall, being reconciled and reconstructed via New Creation in Christ) the finite and corruptible fount of reasoning of Aristotle and the rest must be shown to not exist in their own rebellious system but evidences the truth-heh-Logos which they are suppressing in unrighteousness, being without excuse, which is the only foundation for the reasoning and the oughtness of reasoning.  Please pardon probable run-ons.
    The way which you reasoned with Hitchens made me think you read more Van Til than you have.   Read more Van Til, as he is my favorite theologian, but some Van Tillians hate the power of rhetoric in argument as I have experienced (they love theology of sin in the abstract but don’t want to see the real life rhetoric and application) , so read Van Til and love the truth he promotes but more rhetoric and narration of such as Chesterton, Lewis, and Luther.  This is what I enjoy about your style, it is more human than the Rationalistic Van Tillians who claim to be  against the rationalist-irrationalist dialectic.

  26. Jay,
    I would be one who finally put down the opposition due to fully understanding Van Til. Actually its was Bahnsen, but either way, put me in that category. To be fair, I was involved in the Christian world (attended a Church of the Nazarene), but once I was in college, I almost fully adopted a skeptic’s worldview. I liked to put Christian window dressing on it, but my worldview was essentially was Van Til autonomous human thinking. That changed after Bahnsen (and Ravi Zacharias and Alstair Begg, too).

  27. Correction: “my worldview was essentially what Van Till called autonomous human thinking.”

  28. Two questions for the author, others are welcome to respond, too:
    1. If you’ve read Newbigin (particularly “Proper Confidence”), would you include him in the presuppositional european allies?  (He sure doesn’t seem to be part of the axis.)
    2. “God loves me and Van Til” is grammatically correct, correct?

  29. “[M]y hope is that I might sometimes remind people of him.”
    Mission accomplished!  You’ve totally got that cranky/wacky thing going, like a preschooler wielding a light saber.  Fey and fell, entertaining and edifying.

  30. I concur with Dan; Jesus invariably stresses belief as the foundational premise: “…for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins (John 8:24)…Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 8:26)…O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:31).
    I think that no other proposition or evidence will suffice until belief exists, and I think that the accuser of the brethren underscored that fact by virtue of the question “Yea, hath God said?”  Paul witnessed to this “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified…” Some of the best factual evidence confronted those who desired to murder both Lazarus and Jesus. No material evidence is sufficient absent belief.

  31. Interestingly, the “no neutrality” approach is one of the major reasons why I dislike Van Til.  This “friend or foe, with us or against us” approach is geared for war, not discussion.  As for which form of apologetics is more effective, the answer of course is “none of them”.  I’d wager only a miniscule fraction of the Christians in history became so because of any exposure to apologetics.  That kind of thing just isn’t what motivates religion. 

  32. Matt, the Bible says we are at war, and the Word of God requires us to do apologetics.

  33. I confess that my mostly-impertinent thought on reading this post was to wonder whether anyone has attempted to rewrite “Me and Bobby McGee” with proper grammar. Seems like it would be a hoot.

  34. OK, would delete prior post if I could. Technically Joplin’s popular hit is OK grammatically. Never mind.

  35. Matt,
     
    Where would you say the neutrality is in a declarations like this: “He that is not with me is against me;”

  36. or one like this: “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt…”
    Those are plainly read as either/or, black or white, fish or cut bait types of statements.
    So, its kind of like the veteran MSgt who pulled the pin and tossed the grenade from his boat to the game warden and asked, “are you just gonna talk, or are you gonna fish?”

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    Hello,
     
    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.
     
    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.
     
    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.
     
    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:
     
    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm
     
    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8
     
    Thank you,
     
    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  38. Van Til is not best thought of as an apologist, but as a meta-apologist. He explains why apologetics works, and seeks to clarify it and exorcize it from autonomous accretions.

  39. Matt, I agree with you that apologetics doesn’t necessarily motivate religion.  However, it does help to persuade non-believers that there is a God – at minimum – and that their own worldview probably lacks coherence.  So it can do that.  And as I stated earlier, it can also be quite effective in bolstering the confidence and reasonableness of the Christian faith (for those already in the community of the faith).  In the end, though, no one who denies God is without excuse.  That’s the whole point of Romans chapter 1.  But that’s where general revelation ends and where special revelation must intervene.   

  40. Another couple of points: The history of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary is said to be this: According to Van Til, everybody is wrong. According to Frame, everybody is wrong, but everybody is right about some things also. According to Poythress, everybody is right, from a certain perspective. The last is humor.
     
    Van Til took his life’s work to be exorcism. But that does not mean he saw nothing good, nothing “presuppositional,” in the work of those he criticized. You are right to see presuppositional notions in Chesterton and Lewis, and we can see them in Aquinas also for that matter. Van Til sought to keep the gold and purge the dross. He wanted Schaeffer and Lewis to be consistent, and saw that they weren’t. In his writings, however, he seldom mentioned the gold. Yet it should be known to all and sundry: When CVT’s wife was dying and in bed for months, he read the Narnia tales to her each night. That pretty much says it all, in my opinion.

  41. My problem with “Apologetics’ is that it rhymes with “Apologize” which means I have done something to atone for; which really irritates me and is not the nature of our faith.
    Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day) over at his blog is engaging an atheist professor in his series of posts starting with http://voxday.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-fifth-horseman-1.html
    There is no defensiveness there. VD is, I contend, building a ‘no-apology-agetics’  model for our times.
     
     
     
     

  42. Doug, you said,
    << The first chapters of Miracles contains one of the finest presuppositional demolition jobs on naturalism that you can find anywhere.>>
    What edition of Miracles are you used to? Are you familiar with the 1948 debate in which Elizabeth Anscombe disputed Lewis’s argument against naturalism from chapter 3 of Miracles? Lewis agreed that he lost the debate badly, which resulted in a significant re-working of that chapter for the 1960 edition of Miracles. 
    I thought you may enjoy looking into that if you weren’t familiar already.

  43. It’s worth noting that it’s at least highly questionable that Lewis would have lost if the “fight” had been “fair”. FWIW: http://www.covenantoflove.net/faith/how-c-s-lewis-handled-losing-a-debate-with-anscombe/

  44. Doug, you should have titled this post, “Me and Corny Van T”.

  45. RFB, Jesus was there talking to the Pharisees, notable for feigning disinterestedness.  He wasn’t having any of it and let them know.

    And as I stated earlier, it can also be quite effective in bolstering the confidence and reasonableness of the Christian faith (for those already in the community of the faith).

    Agreed.  I didn’t mean to imply that apologetics was completely useless or that no one should ever do it, only that it isn’t particularly useful for evangelism. 

  46. Matt, refuting false gods is evangelism.  Apologetics is critical for evangelism.

  47. Matt,
    His audience was both the extant audience, as well as “all men everywhere”. He now commands all men everywhere to repent. Not a neutral position.

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    Hello,
     
    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.
     
    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.
     
    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.
     
    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:
     
    http://www.thegreatideas.org/HowToReadABook.htm
     
    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8
     
    Thank you,
     
    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  49. With God’s help, natural revelation is as fully capable of getting us saved as is Bible.

  50. Eric, I think natural revelation plays a role, but it can only take one so far regarding their salvation.  We need special revelation: we need the Holy Spirit and the Bible.  As I stated earlier, we may deduce that God exists by our reason and by our senses (natural revelation), but we cannot know Him personally except by divine (special) revelation.  We receive this revelation only through the work of divine grace and faith, as God intervenes in our lives and accommodates Himself toward us.  As Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Thus, without the Holy Spirit and the Bible (special revelation), mere natural revelation will come up short.  Nevertheless, natural revelation is still useful (and vital) since it informs us that we are without excuse if we deny God.  That’s the whole point of Romans chapter 1. 

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