Thoughts on Reading Van Til

grbrtRecently, my Church’s book club began a study on apologetics. We reasoned that if we want to reach the world, we have to be able to understand what they believe in light of what we believe and boldly articulate the truth in new and fresh ways. As a Christian and rational person in general, I believe the Christian worldview is the best worldview that exists. It possesses logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and existential viability. What does that mean? Christianity makes sense, it explains what it needs to explain, and it is livable. I agree with Francis Schaeffer who once said, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather spelled with a capital ‘T.’ Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality- and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.” In light of that, we began our study with Cornelius Van Til’s short book Why I Believe in God. The book is a created dialogue between the philosopher of religion and someone who cares nothing for religion. I did not pick the book out myself but, after reading the book, I think this was the perfect starting point. Why? The transcendental argument has to be first. All theistic proofs for God’s existence presuppose reason.

The Vindication of Reason

What is the transcendental argument for God’s existence? Simply put, it is an explanation of reason that utilizes a transcendent basis. Namely, God himself. Van Til writes, “I believe in God now because unless I have Him as the All-Conditioner, life is Chaos…I hold that belief in God is not merely as reasonable as other belief, or even a little or infinitely more probably true than other belief; I hold rather that unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else.” His argument is really simple when you think about it. He writes again, “I propose to argue that unless God is back of everything, you cannot find meaning in anything. I cannot even argue for belief in Him, without already having taken Him for granted.” Without a belief in God, there’s no reason to trust reason. There’s no objective basis for your rational faculties. You cannot make sense out of sense without God’s existence.

efrreMany folks gawk at Van Til because they say, “you’re not arguing or proving God’s existence! You’re merely saying it is so.” Van Til does not deny charges of circularity per se for all reasoning will eventually become circular. He writes, “Arguing about God’s existence, I hold, is like arguing about air. You may affirm that air exists, and I that it does not. But as we debate the point, we are both breathing air all the time. Or to use another illustration, God is like the emplacement on which must stand the very guns that are supposed to shoot Him out of existence.” To even begin to reason with one about God’s existence presupposes the reliability of reason. Van Til is merely pointing out that before you even utter a word about God, you’re already standing on the foundation of God’s existence. Working in light of Van Til’s argument, K. Scott Oliphant rightly asks, “Is it possible to posit any truth at all without that truth having its genesis and its impetus from God’s creating and sustaining activity? If not, then every truth presupposes that God is, that he is the Creator of all that is, and that he sustains it.”

The Rescue of Reason

Van Til’s presuppositional approach to apologetics in a lot of ways is a rescue mission for reason and rationality. There are many foes of reason but the loudest (or most important?) today is the Darwinist’s creation myth, the biological theory of evolution. Current evolutionary theory acts as an acid to truth and reason. If evolution is true, what is to happen to truth? Evolution’s main concern is the propagation of DNA; not whether or not things correspond to reality. The fundamental question concerning the proliferation of our gene pool is “does it work?” Not, “is it true?” Say 50,000 years ago on the African plain, we decided we would eat vegetables and other animals instead of rocks. We chose not to eat rocks because we believed our ancestor’s spirits indwelt the stones after the great gods of the earth killed them. 50,000 years later and here we are in all our glory. Did the belief that our ancestors went into pebbles further our existence? You bet! Was that true? By no means.

1-1.480x480-75Some might object, “does anyone actually argue this way?” Surely evolutionists grant reason. They do. Most inconsistently. Some are bold and just come out and say it though. Francis Crick, the man who discovered the double helix, says “Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truth, but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendents.” Metaphysician Richard Taylor also notes, “If our sensory and cognitive equipment can be entirely accounted for in terms of chance variations, natural selection, and so on, without supposing that they somehow embody and express the purposes of some creative being, then we cannot say of them that they are, entirely by themselves, reliable guides to any truth whatever, save only what can be inferred from their own structure and arrangements.” Affirming the dubious point, Patricia Churchland writes, “Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive…Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.” Even the granddaddy of it all, Charles Darwin worries out loud remarking, “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” In the end, why trust what a mere animal has to say? How does evolution account for reason? How did reason come about? Friedrich Nietzsche before dying in an insane asylum of syphilis answers, “How did rationality arrive in the world? Irrationally, as might be expected: by a chance accident.” How encouraging and dangerous.

God’s existence protects, buttresses, and accounts for the reliability of reason itself. Most within our ragtag club of books thought Van Til’s overarching argument was a helpful one. Van Til again writes, “On the other hand by my belief in God I do have unity in my experience. Not of course the sort of unity that you want. Not a unity that is the result of my own autonomous determination of what is possible. But a unity that is higher than mine and prior to mine. On the basis of God’s counsel I can look for facts and find them without destroying them in advance. On the basis of God’s counsel I can be a good physicist, a good biologist, a good psychologist, or a good philosopher. In all these fields I use my powers of logical arrangement in order to see as much order in God’s universe as it may be given a creature to see. The unities, or systems that I make are true because [they are] genuine pointers toward the basic or original unity that is found in the counsel of God.” That type of unity is something most desire. Who does not want an all-encompassing way of relating, accounting for, and discussing reality? Theists have God. Atheists have evolution.

There is No Neutrality

fgbfhVan Til is also helpful in the apologetic endeavor because he stresses the point that no man is neutral. It is not the case that if we merely just give a summation of the central facts of our position, an unbelieving individual will recognize the validity of such truths and come to our position. Sometimes I get the sense that some apologists really do think that’s all there is to be done. Just give em the facts. The unbeliever is not without bias. Van Til says, “To be “without bias” is only to have a particular kind of bias. The idea of “neutrality” is simply a colorless suit that covers a negative attitude toward God. At least it ought to be plain that he who is not for the God of Christianity is against Him. You see, the world belongs to Him, and that you are His creature, and as such are to own up to that fact by honoring Him whether you eat or drink or do anything else. God says that you live, as it were, on His estate. And His estate has large ownership signs placed everywhere, so that he who goes by even at seventy miles an hour cannot but read them. Every fact in this world, the God of the Bible claims, has His stamp indelibly engraved upon it. How then could you be neutral with respect to such a God? Do you walk about leisurely on a Fourth of July in Washington wondering whether the Lincoln Memorial belongs to anyone? Do you look at “Old Glory” waving from a high flagpole and wonder whether she stands for anything? Does she require anything of you, born an American citizen as you are? You would deserve to suffer the fate of the “man without a country” if as an American you were neutral to America. Well, in a much deeper sense you deserve to live forever without God if you do not own and glorify Him as your Creator. You dare not manipulate God’s world and least of all yourself as His image-bearer, for you own final purposes. When Eve became neutral as between God and the Devil, weighing the contentions of each as though they were inherently on the face of them of equal value, she was in reality already on the side of the devil!”

This is why Reformed people are mainly of the presuppositional type when it comes to apologetics and defending their faith. Apologetics is like all things; it’s under the lordship of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31). Christ demands the worship of every creature because He truly is worthy of it. We are not worthy of it. In fact, every human on the planet is not only unworthy but a sinner. We should not treat folks as if they aren’t under the judgment of God as we reason with them. We do this. The philosopher writes, “In our arguments for the existence of God we have frequently assumed that you and we together have an area of knowledge on which we agree. But we really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly. We really think you have colored glasses on your nose when you talk about chickens and cows, as well as when you talk about the life hereafter. We should have told you this more plainly than we did.” If we are merely conditioned for belief in God, it follows that the atheist is conditioned by something else all together. “You were as thoroughly conditioned not to believe in God as I was to believe in God. So let us not call each other names. If you want to say that belief was poured down my throat, I shall retort by saying that unbelief was poured down your throat.”

The Bible speaks many times about the knowledge of God being accessible to human beings. To show his goodness, glory, and other perfections, God has generally revealed himself via the following routes: nature (Rom. 1:18-23; Psa. 19; Acts 14:15-17), conscience (Gen. 1:26-27; Rom. 2:14-16), humanity’s ontology (universal moral nature, inherent religious tendencies, and consciousness), and reason/logic itself. There is a connection between God and man because we are made in His image. We have a divine sense about us because we bear the marks of our manufacturer. The Sensus Divinitatis. There is a connection because His glory is on display in the universe around us. All of it is a theater for His excellent reputation. There is a connection because our inner self applauds and condemns us when we meet the requirements or fail to meet the requirements of God’s standard. We have the knowledge. We just don’t care. We have spurned the knowledge of God by turning inwards and outwards instead of reflecting it upwards. Man is guilty of rejecting God’s revelation of Himself through the created realm and sinking into the miry depths of self-love and worship of creatures (Rom. 1:18-31). Any and every apologetic endeavor has to reckon with this existential malady. Van Til did.

Other Reasons? 

vdfvfdSome might assume that presuppositionalists would be wrong to give other reasons for God’s existence. Van Til’s statement that “Without such a God, without the God of the Bible, the God of authority, the God who is self-contained and therefore incomprehensible to men, there would be no reason in anything” seems all-encompassing. But, Van Til seemed to be fine with other arguments as long as they were not above God or Scripture itself. As he is describing his conversion experience, he says, “I saw the power of God in nature and His providence in the course of history. That gave the proper setting for my salvation, which I had in Christ.” History, nature, and other means of God revealing Himself aren’t denigrated in Van Til’s work. They’re just not above God or His Word. For the writer, the Holy Spirit’s illumination and self-authenticating work is of immense importance. He writes, “The Bible became for me, in all its parts, in every syllable, the very Word of God. I learned that I must believe the Scripture story, and that “faith” was a gift of God. What had happened in the past, and particularly what had happened in the past in Palestine, was of the greatest moment to me. In short, I was brought up in what Dr. Joad would call “topographical and temporal parochialism.” I was “conditioned” in the most thorough fashion. I could not help believing in God — in the God of Christianity — in the God of the whole Bible!” God’s existence grounds reason and God’s Spirit convinces one of the Gospel and the truth of the Bible. Even classical apologist William Lane Craig agrees writing, “The way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost is the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. And this gives me self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore, even if in some historically contingent circumstances the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I do not think that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is needed for evidence.

Van Til expressly rebukes those who think they do not have to articulate or give reasons why the sinner should believe. Failing to give reasons might leave the sinner in a place where he can believe that reasons cannot be given. For the theologian, there is a use in dialoguing with unbelievers. He responds saying, “You may reply to this: “Then what’s the use of arguing and reasoning with me?” Well, there is a great deal of use in it. You see, if you are really a creature of God, you are always accessible to Him. When Lazarus was in the tomb he was still accessible to Christ who called him back to life. It is this on which true preachers depend. The prodigal [son] thought he had clean escaped from the father’s influence. In reality the father controlled the “far country” to which the prodigal had gone. So it is in reasoning. True reasoning about God is such as stands upon God as upon the emplacement that alone gives meaning to any sort of human argument. And such reasoning, we have a right to expect, will be used of God to break down the one-horse chaise of human autonomy.” Scripture directly commands that Christians be ready to give an apologetic for the hope they have within (1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3). There are also numerous examples in Scripture that we should emulate of the people of God engaging in Christian apologetics (Jer. 10:1-16; Matt. 22:30-32; 2 Cor. 10:5; Luke 1:1-4; Acts 17:16-34; Rom. 1-2). Why? Because it may be the instrumental means God uses to break the sinful desire for human autonomy. He might bring people in the fold. Even if it fails to remove barriers to belief, it serves the purpose of shutting the mouth of the obstreperous. Again, he notes “The God who claims to have made all facts and to have placed His stamp upon them will not grant that there is really some excuse for those who refuse to see.” Christians have an active role in that as long as there are lost people who refuse to believe.


rtgrtgReading Van Til was quite refreshing. What made it a good read was how important the Gospel was within the short work. He did not do his apologetic work first and then get to the Gospel. No, the Gospel was peppered throughout the pamphlet. The truth of God affects the whole person. He writes “You feel a little like a man who is about to undergo a major operation. You realize that if you are to change your belief about God, you will also have to change your belief about yourself.”  His work did not demand the closing of Scripture. In fact, it was one built upon the foundation of holy writ and Christ’s blood atonement. All in all, Van Til had two main points: 1) you cannot justify reason without God and 2) you cannot justify yourself and desperately need Christ. “Only the great Physician through His blood atonement on the Cross and by the gift of His Spirit can take those colored glasses off and make you see facts as they are, facts as evidence, as inherently compelling evidence, for the existence of God.”


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