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.

50
Leave a Reply

avatar
 
50 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
30 Comment authors
DanEric StampherMax WeismannRFBStewart Recent comment authors

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Seth B.
Guest
Seth B.

Had you ever read Studies in Words before?

Seth B.
Guest
Seth B.

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

Erik Reed
Guest

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

Michael
Guest

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 :-)

J
Guest
J

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.

Alli
Guest
Alli

I still have my free copy of “Persuations”!

Robert
Guest
Robert

It worked for Janis Joplin.

RFB
Guest
RFB

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… Read more »

Brad Jones
Guest
Brad Jones

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.

Arwen B
Guest
Arwen B

@ 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”

Reuben K.
Guest
Reuben K.

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”.

timothy
Guest
timothy

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

Michael D
Guest
Michael D

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.

J
Guest
J

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… Read more »

jay niemeyer
Guest
jay niemeyer

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… Read more »

Dan
Guest
Dan

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… Read more »

Dan
Guest
Dan

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… Read more »

Dan
Guest
Dan

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.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

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

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Oops — meant postmillenial tail

Dan
Guest
Dan

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,… Read more »

Don
Guest
Don

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… Read more »

timothy
Guest
timothy

What Dan said.

Nicholas Barnes
Guest
Nicholas Barnes

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… Read more »

BJ
Guest
BJ

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).

BJ
Guest
BJ

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

Matt
Guest
Matt

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?

prayersofadoration
Member

“[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.

RFB
Guest
RFB

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… Read more »

Matt
Guest
Matt

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. 

Stewart
Guest
Stewart

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

Jim
Guest
Jim

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.

Jim
Guest
Jim

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

RFB
Guest
RFB

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

RFB
Guest
RFB

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?”

Max Weismann
Guest

0 0 1 148 847 the great ideas 7 1 994 14.0 Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”;} 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… Read more »

James Jordan
Guest
James Jordan

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.

Dan
Guest
Dan

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.   

James Jordan
Guest
James Jordan

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… Read more »

timothy
Guest
timothy

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.
 
 
 
 

Dustan Chevalier
Guest
Dustan Chevalier

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.

Andrew Fulford
Guest

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/

Dan Glover
Guest

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

Matt
Guest
Matt

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. 

Stewart
Guest
Stewart

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

RFB
Guest
RFB

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.

Max Weismann
Guest

0 0 1 148 847 the great ideas 7 1 994 14.0 Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”;} 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… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

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

Dan
Guest
Dan

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… Read more »