Many people have tried, over recent years, to summarize the thinking
of Cornelius Van Til. Often it has been put in terms of "Taking
every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor.10:5),
and that is certainly a suitable designation. But I want to put
it in terms of Cornelius' spectacles. I want to make this a story
about a man who had just one pair of spectacles; who would not
take those spectacles off for anything or anybody; who refused
to wear a new pair, even when some told him the old pair was worn
out, had served its purpose. I speak, of course, about the "spectacles"
of the Scriptures. Van Til's story is the story of a man who
wanted to look at everything, from the least fact to the greatest,
through the "spectacles" of the Word of God.
The Life and Times of Cornelius Van Til
Van Til's story begins in Holland in 1895. Cornelius was born into a down-to-earth, godly, farming family, who brought up their son with the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God in every syllable. That is a conviction that stayed with Cornelius throughout his life, right to the end. After a time, the family moved from Holland to the United States, settling on a farm in Indiana, and joining the Christian Reformed Church there. Cornelius, who was blessed with Christian schooling throughout, continued his education in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where many Reformed families sent their children to learn.
Now boys can choose from all sorts of hobbies. Coming from a farming family, you might have expected Cornelius to go for hunting, or fishing, something active and out-doors. Instead, presaging the future, Cornelius made a hobby of reading philosophy! Philosophy was not, however, his only taste in books. During his time in Grand Rapids, the young man also began to study the works of Abraham Kuyper. From Kuyper he learned one of the foundational principles of his later philosophy: the "Antithesis": the fundamental opposition and schism between the regenerate mind on the one hand, and the unregenerate mind on the other - an antithesis that must be recognized and prosecuted in every area of life. Believing that he had a call to the pastoral ministry, Van Til began to study at Calvin Theological Seminary, also in Grand Rapids. There he benefited from the teaching of men like Berkhof, and Volbeda. But after only one year at Calvin Seminary, Cornelius transferred to Princeton Seminary, New Jersey. Princeton at that time was conservatively Presbyterian, boasting such professors as Geerhardus Vos, O.T.Allis, and J.Gresham Machen. The Presbyterian Church which supported the seminary was, however, not so conservative. Van Til began to get first-hand experience of theological liberalism within the Presbyterian Church.
After finishing his Th.M., and then his Ph.D. at Princeton, Van
Til accepted a call to a rural CRC congregation. But after only
one year in the ministry, Princeton Seminary invited him to teach
apologetics (the defense of the faith), and he accepted. The post
at Princeton did not last long. In 1929, the liberals in the
Presbyterian Church outmanoeuvred the conservatives, and managed
to gain control of Princeton Seminary. The more conservative
members of the faculty resigned. Van Til returned to his rural
pastorate. One must feel sorry for the rural congregation in which
Van Til ministered. For one year later, Westminster Theological
Seminary, Philadelphia, was set up by the ex-Princeton professors.
Van Til was asked to join. At first he refused, but with much
pressure and several visits from his former colleagues, he relented.
While at Westminster Seminary, Van Til became a well-known and controversial figure throughout the Reformed and Presbyterian world. The controversy arose because of his strongly polemical approach to his subject, apologetics. Van Til pulled no punches in attacking Liberalism, Neo-Orthodoxy (eg.Karl Barth), Roman Catholicism, and Evangelicalism. He was also critical of "friends", such as Abraham Kuyper, Old Princeton (eg.Benjamin Warfield), Dooyeweerd, and Calvin College. All of these were, he believed, inconsistent in the way they defended the Christian faith, and developed their theological systems. They were guilty, at some points, of adopting Arminian/Roman Catholic presuppositions about nature and grace, and about human depravity.
Despite his polemical approach, Van Til was, however, a humble
man. One of the most brilliant Christian philosophers of history,
he nevertheless demonstrated that he possessed a warm and lively
Christian spirit. He was much loved by the fellow-members of
the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to which he belonged. To struggle
through his very difficult writings, one would think that here
was an "ivory tower" theologian, if ever there was one.
But that would be a wrong conclusion. Van Til was convinced
that his Calvinistic philosophy was practical, and he certainly
put it into practice himself. You can see it, for example, in
Van Til's dedication to evangelism: writing evangelistic tracts
for the average man-on-the-street; writing on Jewish philosophy
and theology, in order to reach the Jewish community; street preaching
in Hammond, Indiana; down on the boardwalk, on the Jersey Shore
each summer, preaching to passers by; at age 83 (!) preaching
on Wall Street, Manhattan. Van Til was also dedicated to Christian
education. He not only wrote on the subject, but was also active
in establishing a Christian school in Philadelphia.
The Christian Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til
One thing for sure about Van Til's apologetical material. It does not make for light reading. If you have no background in philosophy, it is like a foreign language. So I want to simplify things as much as I can. Let's come back to Van Til's spectacles. Van Til maintains that everyone is wearing glasses. Not just wearing them: everyone has glasses cemented to their face. The spectacles come in two types: they are either the rose-coloured glasses of the Christian, or the jaundice-coloured glasses of the non-Christian. All human beings look at the world through one pair of glasses or the other. This is the Antithesis. In other words, no person is able to look at the world, or any part of it, other than through these spectacles - either the jaundiced, or the rose-tinted variety. The glasses cannot be removed for one minute, for they are cemented on. The Christian looks at every fact, and interprets every fact, according to Christian presuppositions. The non-Christian looks at every fact, and interprets every fact, according to non-Christian presuppositions. There is no neutrality. There are no situations where we simply see the facts as they are - what Van Til calls "brute facts", bare, uninterpreted facts. We always interpret the facts, through our "glasses", either the Christian or the non-Christian variety. And those two sets of interpretations are diametrically opposed to one another.
The emphasis on the Antithesis is not new. Van Til himself had learned it from Kuyper. But what distinguishes Van Til's philosophy from other Christian and even Reformed apologetics, is the consistency with which he applies the Antithesis. Others have wanted to find some area of life where the glasses can come off, and the Christian can sit down with the non-Christian, and just talk about the facts of life together, without bias or prejudice or interpretation: just the facts, nothing but the facts. Kuyper, for example, wanted to allow just one area of neutrality. One area where the glasses could come off, where the Antithesis did not apply, where the Christian and the non-Christian see things the same. One area where the Christian and the non-Christian have things in common - what Van Til refers to as "common ground". For Kuyper it was the area of weighing, counting and measuring. For others, the neutral, common ground, lies in the area of logic, the rules of logic. Or it might be all the facts of the natural world, science, and so on. Or the principles of philosophy. Some have accounted for this "common ground" by the presence of "common grace". Van Til accepts the idea of "common grace" - the idea that God restrains the sinner from being fully consistent with his God-denying presuppositions, allowing life to go on in the world, society to develop, man to discover many things about the world etc. - but he utterly rejects the idea of neutrality in the interpretation of the world, the idea of common ground, even with weighing, counting and measuring. That is the unique aspect of his view.
There are two main reasons why Van Til is adamant about the glasses staying on all the time. One is because of sin. The point is that depravity is total. It affects every person, and it affects every person at every level of their being. It also affects their mind - what is sometimes called the "noetic effects of sin". Sin darkens the mind, and only regeneration can illuminate it. The unregenerate mind can do nothing other than interpret the facts - all facts, all the time - as the devil wants. The other reason is because of the Word of God. Van Til wants the Scriptures to form the presupposition behind the way we look at everything, to do all from faith, to take every thought captive to Christ, not just some things. Logic, science, philosophy, art, woodwork, sport, all facts are included.
Misunderstandings easily arise at this point. Many object that it is impossible to have a uniquely Christian view of technical subjects, one that differs from a non-Christian view. That a Christian will, for example, teach woodwork or sewing in exactly the same way as a non-Christian. Here is common ground for the Christian and the non-Christian. Others try to put Van Til's view into practice in a superficial way. As if it is just a matter of collecting all the Bible verses that relate to the subject, and tacking them on to the technical side of things. Like a Pentecostal school I heard about that taught maths to the children using "biblical" measurements such as cubits.
What Van Til means is, however, much deeper than that. What he
is saying is that the difference between Christian and non-Christian
lies fundamentally at the level of the significance they
place upon the facts. The interpretation of the facts. It is
a matter of where the facts lie in one's system of thought,
one's world-and-life view. That significance will, moreover,
be more or less apparent, depending on the subject under investigation.
When dealing with the "first table" of the law - Which
God is true? Who is God? How do we worship Him? Evolution or
creation? - the differences will be very noticeable. When dealing
with the "second table" of the Law - questions of ethics,
how we relate to fellow-man - the difference will still be noticeable,
though less so. More situations will arise where the non-Christian
appears to agree with the Christian eg. on abortion, euthanasia,
and so on. When dealing with technical subjects - weighing, counting
and measuring, woodwork etc. - the differences will be least apparent.
There will generally be an outward, theoretical, verbal agreement
- what Van Til calls a "formal" or "relative"
agreement. What the unbeliever says will be true "in itself",
true "as far as it goes", true "in an objective
sense". Nevertheless, the unbeliever interprets even these
facts according to his wrong system, ultimately with reference
to himself as opposed to God.
The right questions
That truth can be uncovered by asking the unbeliever the right questions about the significance he places upon the facts. The basic Christian presuppositions are the existence of the Triune God, and the fact of His having spoken to us in His infallible Word. From that Word, we learn of the key pattern of Creation/Fall/Redemption, that has shaped history. All facts must be interpreted according to these truths. By asking the right questions about how the unbeliever sees the facts within the scheme of Creation/Fall/Redemption, you will soon uncover the fact that he sees things very differently. He sees all facts, including those of the more technical world as uncreated (eg.evolved), as unaffected by the Fall, as irrelevant to the service of God, and removed from the process of redemption. Even if the unbeliever speaks the same way we do about the facts - and he may even be willing to speak about creation, sin, and salvation - he means something different, because he interprets things according to a radically different system of belief.
That is not to say that the unbeliever is as thoroughly consistent with his God-denying presuppositions as he could be. If he were fully consistent, he would do no science, study no history, engage in no woodwork - in fact, he would be left with nothing to say about anything. At this point Van Til's argument involves a little philosophy. It requires a certain amount of effort to master that argument. His point is that in a universe governed by God, all facts are related, since they all spring from a common source, God's creation, and are all governed by a common purpose of the same sovereign God. The true significance of any individual fact depends on where it fits in that "Big Picture".
If, on the other hand, the God of the Bible is denied, then the universe must be "governed" by Chance. Everything is then random and unrelated. Things only appear to be related, to work according to scientific laws and patterns. How can man then explain the relationship between the myriad facts of life? How can he find unity in the diversity of the universe, and diversity within the unity? Perhaps man will try to make sense of it all by ordering reality with his own mind. But then he discovers that his own mind is finite. He does not know all the facts of the universe. He does not know how all the facts fit together. He does not know the "Big Picture", so how can he properly explain individual facts?
Man's solution is often to split reality up into small, bite size
packages, and call himself an expert in one or more of these areas.
He tries to make himself an authority on the facts, in order
to replace God's authority. But that does not solve the problem.
The only way that man can truly understand individual facts is
to know all of the facts, and how they relate to one another.
Or, to have Someone who does know all the facts reveal
their significance to us.
In Van Til's view, we do have that revelation from the God who
knows all the facts and how they relate to one another. The Bible
gives us the presuppositions we need to interpret individual facts
rightly. It is the spectacles by which we can view all of life
That is not to say that Christians cannot learn anything about
the facts from non-Christians. Because non-Christians are inconsistent
with the logic of their own position, with their own presuppositions
- in a sense they "borrow" Christian presuppositions
about reality eg.the expectation of law and order rather than
ultimate randomness - and because this is, after all, God's world
in which they live, they often discover truth about the world.
Christians can therefore co-operate with non-Christians in certain
activities. We can often use their findings - Van Til calls it
"spoiling the Egyptians" - so long as we always take
care to sever their discovery from the interpretation they place
upon it, to cut it away from its non-Christian presuppositions
and place it in the context of Christian presuppositions. The
emphasis on presuppositions has earned Van Til's approach the
Putting the Philosophy into Practice
The two most significant applications of Van Til's ideas are in apologetics and education. In both these areas, the thrust of Van Til's meassage is that Christians must not try to remove their "spectacles", even momentarily: not while they defend the faith; and not while they educate their children.
As to the area of education, it is easy to see why Van Til was such a strong advocate of Christian Schools. For he has maintained that the unbeliever always interprets the facts according to his God-denying presuppositions. Even in the more technical subjects like computing or cooking or woodwork, the unbeliever's presuppositions will show through. The Christian curriculum, however, will reflect Christian presuppositions about the Triune God, and His Word, as well as the Creation/Fall/Redemption scheme. All facts will be presented as created facts, facts being interpreted by fallen men in a world now under a curse, but to be used in service to God by those who are redeemed. The non-Christian can add one plus one correctly, but he can never interpret one-plus-one correctly, and never teach the students about the above presuppositions behind one-plus-one. Indeed, he must deny these presuppositions if he is asked. And even if he tries very hard to be neutral, he will not succeed. Sooner or later, his presuppositions will show through.
In the other main area of his work, that of defending the faith, Van Til is very critical of the method of classical apologetics - the traditional Evangelical approach. He is also critical of some of the otherwise Reformed theologians like B.B.Warfield, who seem to have slipped into the classical method at times. According to Van Til, the classical method is a two-step process in which one first uses neutral reason to convince the listener of the truth of the Bible, and only brings in the content of the Bible in a second, later stage. First, one uses the arguments or "evidences" from history, archaeology, science, philosophy etc, without assuming the truth of the Bible; then, when the person is convinced that the Bible might be true, that "a" God might exist, then the content of the Gospel is presented, the nature of this God about whom one has been arguing, and an invitation is given to believe upon the Name of Jesus. The starting-point in "evidences" leads to the term "Evidentialism" for this approach.
The problem with this method is that it denies the effect of sin upon the mind. It gives the unbeliever the impression that he actually has the ability to sit down and reason together with the Christian, using neutral reason to discuss the brute facts, on common ground. It is being implied that his mind is not that seriously damaged by the Fall that he cannot use reason correctly, if only he will, to see the truth of the Christian claims about the Bible. The unbeliever is being permitted to think that both he and the Christian can remove their respective "spectacles" as they discuss life, the meaning of the universe, and all that. In the second phase, however, the Reformed believer following this method will want to turn around and give the content of the Bible, including the truth that the mind is fallen, enslaved to Satan, darkened, and blind, that the unregenerate mind always suppresses the truth in unrighteousness cf.Rom.1:18f. He will imply
that the Christian and the non-Christian cannot reason together unless the Spirit of God enables it, unless the Holy Spirit is already convincing his mind of the content of the Bible, enabling him to grasp Christian presuppositions.
Van Til refers to the classical approach as "Block-House Methodology": trying to build a good upper storey upon an unstable lower level. The ground-level is unstable because of its essentially Arminian/Roman Catholic view of man's mind. Moreover, it has theoretically denied the existence of the God of the Bible, allowing the non-Christian to deal with God as merely "probably" true. But there is no probability about God's existence. The Bible does not teach us about the possibility or probability of God. It allows only His actual existence as the absolute truth, without which we ultimately cannot say anything about anything else!
Instead, Van Til argues for a "Presuppositional" approach, in which the Christian unashamedly admits, from the very start, that he argues for the existence of God, proves the truth of the Bible, based upon the presuppositions of the Bible. He admits his "bias", that he cannot take his glasses off, and does not want to. But he also knows that the unbeliever has jaundice-coloured spectacles cemented to his face, and therefore works with a "bias" as well. That is not to say that the Christian will necessarily say all this to the unbeliever every time. But it will govern the method that he uses, and the way that he thinks and responds in the evangelistic endeavour. He will not accept the classical way of looking at it, because that way is inconsistent with Biblical presuppositions. Because Van Til extends the Antithesis to cover every fact, it might be asked whether there is any point in speaking with unbelievers at all. After all, there is nothing in common with them, no common ground. They look through their spectacles, and we look through ours.
In answering this question, the "Presuppositional" method that Van Til proposes relies very much upon the teaching of Romans 1. In that chapter, Paul establishes that deep down, every person knows the truth of God's existence, though they suppress it. The impact of general revelation, every fact crying out that God exists, constantly presses upon man. Because of the way God has made man, and still testifies to him, man is "incurably religious". Every man has a sense of God's existence - the sensus deitatis - even if it is suppressed.
This, the sensus deitatis, also called the "seed of religion" (semen religionis), is the "point of contact" that we have with non-Christians. It is not the same thing as "common ground". "Common ground" refers to facts that are interpreted in the same way by Christian and non-Christian alike - there are no such facts. The "point of contact" refers to the fact that deep down, man knows that he is misinterpreting the facts, though he suppresses that knowledge. Our task in evangelism is to appeal directly to that suppressed knowledge, as we tell the sinner that the God whose voice he suppresses is also the Redeemer who can deliver him from death and darkness. We appeal to the sensus deitatis, but not on the basis of a common interpretation of the facts. We tell the sinner that deep down, he knows that the message we are bringing is true, though he will always suppress it until God changes his heart and mind.
A couple of misunderstandings often arise at this point. One is that Van Til had no use for "evidences" of the faith - the rational arguments based upon history, archaeology, science etc. - we are simply to present the Gospel and leave it at that. As it happens, Van Til does accept a place for "evidences", but it is a secondary place. We must be aware of the fact that these evidences do not prove our presuppositions. At least not in the usual sense of the word "proof". The presuppositions come first. If they could be proven by some other rational argument, they would not be presuppositions. A presupposition is a starting-point. The evidences demonstrate the truth of the presuppositions, but they do not provide a "proof" in the sense of a higher criterion of truth by which the presuppositions of the Bible are established to a neutral human reason. If the "evidences" did provide a higher criterion of truth, that criterion would, in turn, become the presupposition. Many people assume, for example, that the Bible can be proven by the fact that it contains no contradictions. The danger there is that a principle of human logic, the law of non-contradiction - that something cannot both be, and be its opposite, at the same time - becomes a higher truth than the Bible itself. It becomes the standard by which the Bible is judged by men. Van Til insists instead we first allow the Bible to prove itself. The Scripture is "self-authenticating", "self-testifying", "self-witnessing". By faith, we hear God's own testimony to the truth of His Word. We then presuppose the truth of His Word. Then we notice the absence of contradictions, and interpret that on the basis of the Scripture's own teaching about itself, such as we find in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21. Even when we see apparent contradictions, we interpret them on the basis of the Bible's own doctrine of Scripture, and conclude that there must be another explanation for what appears to be contradictory. An unbeliever looks at the apparent contradictions and finds evidence that the Bible is not the Word of God, because he interprets the evidence from different presuppositions. The same applies to other "evidences", such as the "proofs" for God's existence. The fact that the universe is orderly, for example, is not a proof to be worked through by neutral reason so that one may accept the Bible. Rather, the Bible is to be accepted, then its presuppositions allow us to rightly interpret the fact of the order of the universe. In that sense, every fact is a "proof" of God - a "proof" in the sense of demonstration of the presuppositions.
Van Til recognizes that his argument is circular: we have to assume that which we are trying to prove. Enemies of "Presuppositionalism" often draw attention to this, claiming that it would make us a laughing stock with unbelievers. But Van Til points out that ultimately all knowledge is circular, both for the Christian and the non-Christian. The non-Christian has God-denying presuppositions which he first assumes, and then uses to interpret the facts so as to prove that his denial of God is correct. The difference is that Christian circularity is the only thing that allows us to understand the true significance of any fact, while non-Christian circularity is inherently self-defeating. For if Chance rules - and here is this clever but difficult argument that Van Til keeps coming back to - if Chance rules, then there are no absolutes, no unity or coherence, nothing other than an accidental relationship between the facts. Then nothing meaningful can be said about anything, including the debate about God's existence and the Bible's validity. The non-Christian assumes the existence of law and order, of unity and coherence between the facts eg of science, history and logic, in order to prove that there is no God, no ultimate law and order, only an accidental or apparent relationship between the facts of science, history and logic. He borrows Christian presuppositions about God and reality, in order to disprove God. He is like a little child climbing up on daddy's knee, in order to slap him in the face.
In approaching the unbeliever, Van Til recommends that we point out to unbelievers the self-defeating nature of their arguments. That we show them where their self-defeating presuppositions lead: to meaninglessness (cf.the point of Ecclesiastes). That we then show them how Christian presuppositions alone allow a meaningful, self-supporting interpretation of the facts. As Pratt puts it in his book Every Thought Captive, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly..." - do not argue as if you accept his presuppositions; "...Answer a fool as his folly deserves" - show him where his presuppositions lead, to vanity (Prov.26:4-5). Unfortunately, Van Til's outline of this approach is generally expressed in very difficult philosophical terms. Many have been left feeling that this argument about self-defeating presuppositions is fine for philosophy students, but not much good for the man-on-the-street. Pratt's book can be of some help there, as it is written for the uninitiated. Personally, I have found it useful to come at it from the angle of ethics. Everybody has some rules of life which they consider to be a simple matter of right and wrong: moral absolutes. When it suits people, they claim there are no moral absolutes, but then they want to turn around and claim absolutes for some other situation.
Christians have long argued that you cannot claim moral absolutes without the absolute Law-Giver. We are on fairly familiar ground with that argument. What Van Til is saying is that the same kind of argument holds for every area of life and knowledge, for every fact. You cannot claim a scientific law without the absolute Law-Giver, the Creator and Ruler of all scientific laws. You cannot claim a logical law in debate, without the Absolute Law-Giver, who determines the nature of Truth. If Chance/Fate is supreme, all that is taken away from you. There is, however, something important to realize about Van Til's approach at this point. Many students of Van Til conclude that this is the essence of his method: show the unbeliever how his presuppositions are self-defeating, and how yours are the only presuppositions that are self-sustaining. But as has been rightly pointed out by some of van Til's opponents, if that were the main thing, then Van Til's method would be just another variation on the classical apologetic, with major emphasis on a philosophical "evidence", a form of argumentation based on the law of non-contradiction: you show the opposition how their position is logically inconsistent, whereas your world-and-life-view is not. That is not what Van Til is saying. With this rather "philosophical" argument about chance and meaning, we must also admit our presuppositions from the start, admit our circular reasoning. We assume the Bible first, and then interpret concepts like "meaninglessness", "absolute", "law", on the basis of the Scripture. With this argument, too, the unbeliever will suppress the truth in unrighteousness, interpret things according to his God-denying presuppositions - until the Lord dispels the darkness of his mind.
Despite this limitation, the endeavour is not a waste of time.
For deep down, your non-Christian friend will know the truth
of what you say. His mind is not neutral, but he is accessible
to God at all times, like Lazarus within the tomb. By God's grace
- and only by that - he will change. Our task is simply to provide
the means that the Lord is pleased to use to bring His elect to
Himself, and to ensure that the way we do that is consistent with
the Reformed faith. The value of the work of Cornelius Van Til
is that it helps us to recognize the ingredients in a consistently
Reformed defense of the faith, and alerts us to the way in which
non-Reformed presuppositions have crept into Christian apologetics.
It is that which makes Van Til one of the greatest Christian
apologists of all time.
Rev. Archbald (Masterton)
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / firstname.lastname@example.org / revised August 96 / Copyright 1996