The material element and the spiritual reality

As both my readers may have observed from recent posts, I’ve read Bradley G. Green’s The Gospel and the Mind. This book is a clear, interesting and persuasive book that argues that it is only the Christian worldview that provides a basis for meaningful rationality and that Christianity, correctly understood, fosters the life of the mind rather than discouraging it. It is basic enough for the uninitiated to read yet delves deep enough to keep the more philosophically-inclined believer interested. Before I move on to the next book in my reading list (yet to be decided), I thought I would summarise one of the more striking points that Green makes.

Biblical truth often uses allegory and metaphor in order to express invisible and, in some ways, unthinkable realities. God is the creator of the material that is used as analogy to describe his spiritual realities. Lewis said there is a “pre-existing similitude between the material element and the spiritual reality.” One of the most obvious examples, and the one that Lewis addresses, is that of baptism. He says, “Water, ex naturali qualitate, was an image of the grace of the Holy Ghost even before the sacrament of baptism was ordained.” (The Allegory of Love, 46). Bradley Green points out that, if this similitude is genuine, then it seems that “this relationship is embedded in the very structure of reality, the structure of the created order… When Lewis avers that some words are more fitting than others in reference to the created order, he is echoing Augustine’s suggestion that God has structured the world in such a way that the various aspects of creation might serve as “examples” for us.” (The Gospel and The Mind, p128). As Augustine put it:

Divine providence has carefully provided certain trees which visibly exemplify these invisible realities which are incredible for those without faith, but are nonetheless true. After all, why should we not believe that this was the reason why he arranged it so that a wild olive is born of a domesticated one? Ought we not to believe that in something created for human use the creator provided and arranged what might serve as an example of the human race?” (Marriage and Desire, 19:21)

Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age”

(This is a follow-up to this post.)

Although the term “religionless christianity” is better known and has provoked more controversy, it is the phrase “world come of age” that had the greatest impact when Bonhoeffer’s letters became widely available. This was not the first time that Bonhoeffer had reflected on the nature of the world and the place of the Christian within it. In his pre-Tegel work, Bonhoeffer’s affirmative attitude towards the world led him to avoid the term “secularisation” since he believed it conveyed a negative and condemnatory tone. Instead he preferred to use the term “autonomy”. But when Bonhoeffer first uses the phrase “world come of age” in a letter on 8th June 1944, it dominates the landscape of his discussions from then on.

For Bonhoeffer, the term “world come of age” refers to the specific stage in the development of human history in which we found ourselves. This implies that humanity has undergone an evolution in culture, intelligence and technology and has now “grown up” to a point where humanity has the ability and responsibility to liberate itself from slavish dependence upon authority and the wisdom of previous ages.

However, Bonhoeffer did not mean by this that the world was morally better. By “world come of age” Bonhoeffer does not mean:

…the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. (Bonhoeffer, Quoted in Bethge, p869)

Bethge believes Bonhoeffer had in mind Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment when thinking about the “world come of age”:

The Enlightenment is the emergence of humanity from self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own intelligence without the guidance of another person. (source unknown)

Bonhoeffer can say, therefore, that the world come of age is the time when, using his own intelligence, man frees himself from the “guardianship of ‘God’” (note the quotation marks) and “that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]”.

Bonhoeffer was not alone in grappling with the nature of Christianity within a secular framework. However, while Paul Tillich, among others,  found it necessary to turn away from the christology of the Reformation in order to make sense of Christ in a secular world, Bonhoeffer saw the “world come of age” as an essential and necessary element of his theologia crucis (theology of the cross). Orthodoxy can only be understood rightly when it is stripped of religious trappings and when the world come of age is accepted and even proclaimed by the Church. The world come of age helps us to understand the gospel, since it clears away false conceptions of God so that the true God of the Bible can be perceived more clearly. Bonhoeffer suggested that, even though we may be more godless, we may, by that very fact, be closer to God now than we were before we “came of age”.

In a godless world God will be discovered not as all-powerful but as the God who allowed himself to be crucified by the world. Nevertheless, as God overcame the world in the weakness of the Cross, He will be the God  “who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.” (One can’t help thinking of the helplessness and futility of Bonhoeffer’s own plight as he wrote these words.) Bonhoeffer’s dialectical approach, recognizing both the unity and paradox of theologia crucis and the world come of age, is expressed in this now famous passage:

“…that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize–before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God let’s himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (Bonhoeffer. Quoted in Bethge, p869)

One consequence of Bonhoeffer’s thinking is the need to change our attitude towards those previously considered hostile to Christianity. Rather than attacking Nietzche and Feuerbach, for example, we listen attentively to them “with a good conscience” (Bethge) recognizing their positive contribution to the on-going maturation of humanity. Even as the Church, we listen to them as prophets “as when they warn the church against becoming an apothecary that ministers to heavenly needs and leaves the world to its own devices” (Bethge, p.870). But the church has it’s own prophetic voice too:

…the church’s theologia crucis may serve the legacy of the Enlightenment as a protection against its own tendency toward the unrealistic. It corrects humankind’s unquenchable urge to glorify, deify, or demonise its progress. It also moves in the other direction, perhaps even more unnecessary today: it protects the Enlightenment’s proponents from the unfortunate tendency, born of a pessimistic resignation and skeptical agnosticism, toward sterile fragmentation of the individual and his or her work.” (Bethge’s words, p 870).

The world is no longer viewed as dangerous to Christianity. Being truly worldly is no longer a stain upon the character of a believer. Rather, the godless world is the necessary, unavoidable context in which God is discovered in weakness and the Christian works out his or her non-religious faith.

We finish with Bethge’s shocking summary of Bonhoeffer’s new theology concerning the world come of age:

At the time it seemed that we had never heard things expressed quite like this before: that the lordship of Christ corresponds to worldliness, and discipleship to a partaking in this world; that the natural, the profane, the rational, and the humane had its place, not against, but with this Christ. (Bethge, p. 870)

Bonhoeffer, Bethge and Metaxas

With the publication of Eric Metaxas’s acclaimed (and criticised) biography in 2010 I decided it was time to revisit Bonhoeffer. I had read most of Bonhoeffer’s best-known books as a student, but my limited theological vocabulary at the time made it a mostly fruitless exercise. To rectify this, over the past couple of years I have read Metaxas’s biography, followed by Ian Kershaw’s outstanding two-volume biography of Hitler to provide some additional historical background. I rounded it all off by reading Eberhard Bethge’s monumental biography, which (to borrow J.I.Packer’s quip about John Owen) was exhaustive and exhausting.

Rather than review these entire books, I would like to compare Metaxas’s and Bethge’s treatment of the theological themes in Bonhoeffer’s prison letters. The most significant letters were sent by Bonhoeffer to Bethge, his friend and colleague, in April 1944 onwards.

Metaxas’s assessment of the content of these theological letters is mixed. He labels Bonhoeffer’s thoughts “ruminations”, “inchoate”, “dubious”, “ill-expressed”, “scattered bricks” and “bone fragments” – but, also calls them “Bonhoeffer’s deepest thoughts”. Bonhoeffer’s own assessment of the theological letters was guarded, but positive. Bonhoeffer asked Bethge to keep the letters in case he wanted to read them at a later date, claiming he can “write some things in a more natural and lively way in a letter than in a book and in letters I often have better ideas than when I’m writing for myself.”

It is true that Bonhoeffer was reluctant to share his thoughts with a wider audience at that time. This is obviously not because he doubted them, but because they were not fully formed. Bethge tells us that Bonhoeffer would usually publish writings as soon as they were ready to provoke a response and were underpinned by argument. But, he did not need to have all objections answered at the time of publication. It seems likely, then, that Bonhoeffer had a firm grasp of this “new theology” (since he worked feverishly on a manuscript while in prison) but had not yet fleshed out the supporting arguments necessary to withstand scrutiny by a theologically astute reader.

In his biography, Metaxas focuses entirely on the infamous term “religionless Christianity” and quotes Bethge from a lecture in 1967:

…the isolated use and handing down of the famous term “religionless Christianity” has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God. (Quoted in Metaxas, p. 465)

Metaxas could never be accused of championing an undialectical shallow modernism. Nevertheless, he is guilty of an isolated assessment of a term that Bonhoeffer uses only once in his letters. Unfortunately, this does mean, to a certain extent, he obscures Bonhoeffer’s new thinking about God, Jesus, the church and the world. Furthermore, if Bonhoeffer’s thoughts were no more than ruminations, it seems a bit presumptuous for Metaxas to suggest a resolution to the controversy in little over 2 pages, using just two short passages from Bonhoeffer’s letters in support. If Metaxas’s summary of the meaning of “religionless Christianity” is accurate, it is hard to understand how Bonhoeffer failed to communicate his own thoughts as clearly and simply as Metaxas does.

In contrast, Bethge, perceiving the complex theological landscape in which this term is found, requires 37 pages of detailed discussion to help explain Bonhoeffer’s “New Theology”. Although Metaxas doesn’t say so, one wonders if he thinks Bethge is one of those “overeager theologians [who] have built diminutive Ziggurats from these few scattered bricks” (p. 466).

Metaxas believes Bonhoeffer was “rethinking some basic things and wondered whether modern man had moved beyond religion” (p. 466). “Religion” was not authentic Christianity, but an “ersatz and abbreviated” Christianity. Metaxas comments:

This ‘religious’ Christianity had failed Germany and the West during this great time of crisis, for one thing, and he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time for the lordship  of Jesus Christ to move past Sunday mornings and churches and into the whole world. But this was an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicatedly Bible centered and Christ centered.  … God was bigger than everyone imagined, and he wanted more of his followers and more of the world than was given him. … Bonhoeffer was wondering if it wasn’t time to bring God into the whole world and stop pretending he wanted only to live in those religious corners that we reserved for him. (p. 466)

In a Christianity Today interview in 2010, Metaxas again addresses the issue narrowly and provides a simple explanation:

“…by the phrase “religionless Christianity” Bonhoeffer meant only that the dead religion that was passing for Lutheran Christianity in Germany before the war had failed [his generation]. Bonhoeffer knew that for Christianity to be more than religion—more than a fig leaf—it had to declare Jesus as Lord over everything, not just the religious sphere.” (

Again, this prompts more questions. Does this adequately reflect Bonhoeffer’s concern in his theological letters? Is the idea of the total lordship of Christ over everything the reason why Bonhoeffer was sometimes “quite shocked” at what he was saying? Was such an innocuous conclusion the reason why Bonhoeffer warned Bethge “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to” (letter, 30th April)?

The fact that Jesus is Lord over the world is a biblical truism. The fact that dead religion is not Christianity is not shocking, nor should we be worried by anyone expressing such thoughts. Bonhoeffer’s shocking thought was that Christ is Lord over the world “come of age”, and over “a world grown of age” and over a “world coming of age”. It is not the world simpliciter that Bonhoeffer is concerned with but the particular stage in Western development of which we are inescapably a part. He was questioning whether we are by nature “religious” or whether we are “worldly”, and considered how Christianity would look when the “religious a priori” is rejected. Most importantly Bonhoeffer is grappling with the consequences for our understanding of who Christ is – a question that bothered Bonhoeffer “incessantly”:

“Let me just summarize briefly what I am concerned about: the claims of Jesus Christ on a world that has come of age.” (letter 30th June, emphasis added)

It is not the fact that Christ has claims on the world, but that he has claims on a secular world, a world that has developed to a place of autonomy apart from God – a religionless world. Bonhoeffer seeks to uncover the meaning of that lordship and, as Christians, our full participation in true worldliness (not in the moral sense) that is devoid of religion. He asks:

“In what way are we “religionless–secular” Christians, in what way are we the ecclesia, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?”

Bethge picks out Bonhoeffer’s central point:

“…it is not a question of how we ought to proclaim the Gospel today but, in view of the historical development of the western world, of who is its content” (Bethge, p. 864, emphasis added).

“Bonhoeffer’s theme entails setting out in order to discover the presence of Christ in the world of today: it is not a discovery of the modern world, nor a discovery of Christ from this modern world. but discovering him in this world. Bonhoeffer asks the simplest of questions, from which it is impossible to emerge unchanged: “Who are you?” (Bethge, p. 865-6. Emphasis is Bethge’s).

Bonhoeffer worked hard on his manuscript. Although this manuscript is lost, we do have chapter headings and a brief outline. In that outline, Bonhoeffer refers back to his letters, which indicates that the content of those earlier letters would be developed in his manuscript. Bethge recognises themes in those letters that correspond to the chapter headings of his manuscript and uses these headings to structure his own analysis of Bonhoeffer’s “New Theology”:

(A) the world come of age (chap. 1: A Stocktaking of Christianity)
(B) nonreligious interpretation (chap. 2: The Real Meaning of Christian Faith)
(C) arcane discipline (chap. 3: Conclusions)

To understand what “religionless Christianity” means for Bonhoeffer it is essential that we, as far as we are able, take into account the breadth of Bonhoeffer’s thought in his prison letters. Bethge does this in a stimulating and well-argued manner.

As time and ability permits, I intend to provide a summary of Bethge’s analysis. By so doing, I hope it will become clear that Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are more complex and more radical than Metaxas believes them to be. And, in a small way, it may help those who do not wish to read Bethge’s 1000-page biography to know more clearly his views on the matter.

Five Views on Circularity

I recently read Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Stephen B. Cowan, and found it a stimulating read. In a volume of this nature the articles inevitably lack the depth that those well-versed in apologetic methodology would appreciate. But, it is the interaction between the different contributors that provides the greatest interest.

One of the main points of contention is the accusation of circularity against presuppositional methodology, represented by John Frame. What follows is a brief summary of the debate over this specific issue in the book.

John Frame

Because God’s standards apply to all of life, His standards must also govern the activity of reason. Since His standards are made known to us in Scriptural revelation, faith in God and his revelation is required in order for our reason to function in accord with those standards. The content of faith is Scripture. In short, faith governs reason.

But, where does faith come from? Frame distinguishes two ways of speaking about the “cause” of faith. Firstly, God is the cause of faith, since it is the gift of God. Secondly, the rational basis of faith is reality since, through the work of the Holy Spirit of truth, God causes us to believe what is true. Frame says, “the faith he gives us agrees with God’s own perfect rationality” and so we can say that our faith is based on rationality.  When we think biblically we think  the way we were designed to think. As our own reason reflects God’s reason, our faith is strengthened as we see the basis of our faith by means of that faith.

(Since creation is an outworking of that rationality our faith will be in perfect agreement with every fact of the universe. Our faith is logically based upon evidence, but is not caused by it.)

Frame admits that to say “faith governs reason” and “faith is based on rationality” involves circularity, but claims it is not viciously circular. Rather, it reflects a more linear relation:

God’s rationality -> Human faith -> Human rationality


God’s truth -> Gift of faith -> Reflection of God’s truth in human reason

Frame states that if we presuppose the truth of Christianity, then an argument (i.e. reason) cannot establish the truth of Christianity since reason would be acting as a more ultimate standard of truth.

Frame claims that circular arguments are unavoidable when dealing with any ultimate authority. Indeed, the use of circular arguments are justified when providing the ultimate criterion of a philosophical system. If reason is the ultimate standard of truth, then the only way to support such a claim is to use the ultimate standard of truth, which is reason. If Allah is the ultimate standard of truth, then you need to appeal to Allah to support such a claim. There can be no higher standard than the ultimate standard.

Frame also distinguishes between a “narrow” circular argument and a “broad” circular argument. A narrow argument would be of the form:

P1: Everything the Bible says is true
P2: The Bible says it is the Word of God
C: The Bible is the Word of God

A broad version employs evidences to bolster the argument, but is still circular since it deals with an ultimate standard.

William Lane Craig

Craig barely moves beyond accusing Frame of a “logical howler”, namely petitio principii (more commonly known as “begging the question”).

Gary R. Habermas

Habermas also accuses Frame of the informal fallacy of circularity. But, he also accuses Frame of the fallacy of false analogy. Frame argues that everyone has a starting point: rationalists have reason; empiricists have sense experience; the believer has Scripture. However, Habermas contends that reason, sense experience and Scripture are not “analogous bases”:

While the rationalist uses reason and the empiricist uses sense experience as tools from which to construct their system, Frame assumes both the tool of special revelation and the system of Scripture, from which he develops his Christian theism.

Since Frame favours the “broad argument” (when the “narrow argument” fails), which uses evidences, Habermans asks why not go to evidences directly? After all, if each side in an apologetic encounter is justifying their ultimate standard circularly, no meaningful apologetics is being done.

Paul D. Feinberg

Feinberg claims that sometimes God uses evidences to cause faith, not merely to confirm it. Likewise, the rational basis of faith may be evidences, such as the resurrection. Both would break the circularity of Frame’s argument.

Feinberg also proposes a way to solve Frame’s “problem” of circularity. He claims both believers and unbelievers share the rules of reason in common, such as the law of non-contradiction, even if we disagree on matters of experience. Rather than simply presupposing Christianity, any debate over the meaning and significance of evidence can be conducted using the shared tools of logical reasoning

Kelly James Clark

Clark does not believe reason functions as a standard of truth, merely as a tool to discover or figure out the truth. Reason is also “sterile without the evidential input of all of our cognitive faculties.” Clark also argues that it is we who must determine whether the Bible is Scripture or not, so there necessarily must be an element of autonomous reason  in every apologetic encounter. Clark questions whether automous reasons is a bad thing. “If it’s a bad thing, it is all the worse for us, because it is all we have”, he claims.

God: the principium essendi of knowledge

After Van Til’s brief discussion of Idealism, in his Introduction to Systematic Theology, he moves on to discuss the principium essendi of knowledge (p. 29). Van Til claims that all of our knowledge has its origin and foundation in God. The self-consciousness of God is necessary for us to know anything of Him. Indeed, our knowledge of any thing at all depends ultimately upon God’s own knowledge of that thing.

God’s knowledge of creation is archetypal in that His knowledge of things encompasses their essence as well as all their relations to other things. Since the works of creation are products of his own determination and will, the knowledge of God is immediate and He does not require discursive thought to infer or deduce new knowledge. His knowledge is comprehensive and perfect. All of God’s knowledge is present to His consciousness at the same time.

God’s knowledge of Himself is similarly comprehensive. God has no sub-consciousness, but is perfectly and completely self-conscious.  He knows transparently and exhaustively His own reasons and purposes for acting, both amongst the members of the Godhead and in His dealings with His creatures.  There is nothing in the being or acts of God that are not fully comprehended by Him.

It is this self-conscious knowing of God that allows man to obtain knowledge of Him. As Berkhof says:

 “It is impossible to deduce a conscious creature from an unconscious God, a creature that knows God from a God that does not know Himself. We can find the principium of our theology only in a personal God, perfect in self-consciousness, as He freely, consciously, and truly reveals Himself.”

In other words, a self-conscious act of self-revelation of God is required for us to know Him. He actively reveals Himself, rather than passively allowing Himself to be discovered and observed by His creatures. This is why Berkhof follows Bavinck by asserting that “Pantheism [ie a god that lacks self-consciousness) is the death of theology”. A being that is not a self-conscious being cannot be a self-revealing being. Bavinck states that God “is knowable only because and insofar as he himself wants to be known.”

Van Til and the Idealism of Bosanquet

After some initial comments on the method of systematic theology, Van Til then moves on to address the views of some prominent British Idealists, particularly those of Bernard Bosanquet (Introduction to Systematic Theology (2007), p27-28).

Unfortunately, Van Til’s comments at this point are brief and lack sufficient detail for those unfamiliar with Bosanquet’s brand of Idealism to fully appreciate Van Til’s point. Even William Edgar’s normally excellent footnotes fail to provide the correct context for Van Til’s interaction with Bosanquet at this point.

Here is my attempt to put some flesh on Van Til’s bones (as someone who, up until 2 days ago, was entirely unfamiliar with Bosanquet’s brand of Idealism). I’ll give an exteremly brief overview, and then deal with some of the more specific complaints that Van Til has against Bosanquet.

The dominant presupposition of Bosanquet’s metaphysics is that reality is “composed of contents determined by systematic combination in a single coherent structue (Logic, p5). This structure is called the Absolute, the “logical universal as a living world”.

In order to understand anything fully requires that it be considered in the context of the Absolute, it being the totality of all reality. It is impossible to obtain the meaning of any fact or thing in isolation from the relationship with other facts of things. Using linear inference alone (ie mathematical inference or Aristotelian syllogism) or to consider elements of propositions atomistically is insufficient to gain knowledge. All the knowledge that we possess – all of our experience – is a part of a coherent, complete system of all knowledge and experience – the Absolute.  It is for this reason that Bosanquet’s views are considered to approximate a coherence view of truth

Although the Absolute is complete, coherent and self-contained, we do not encounter this perfect system of facts and experiences in our own experience. Our experience and knowledge frequently contains evil, wayward desires as well as logical contradictions. Through the making of distinctions and finding resolutions to experiential challenges, our thought and experience moves closer towards the Absolute, in which all contradictions and good/evil conflicts are resolved. The Absolute has complete explanatory power for all of our experience. Our knowledge merely becomes more complete and more true, a closer approximation to the Absolute. We can also say that, in some way, our knowledge becomes “more real”, since the Absolute is reality in its totality.

Essentially, the Absolute, or the Universal (the a priori) has primacy and priority over individuals and empirical particulars (the a posteriori).

Before we get carried away with this general overview, let us go through Van Til’s interaction with Bosanquet and see if we can throw some light on his comments.

Firstly, we should note that the term “logic” refers not to the discipline of formal logic alone but, far more broadly, to knowledge as a whole. Bosanquet calls logic “the spirit of totality” or the science of knowledge.

Secondly, what are the a priori and a posteriori elements of Bosanquet’s thought? The a priori element is the Absolute, the system of all facts and experiences and desires, etc, that make up reality as a whole. The a posteriori element is our own experience, which seeks its resolution and meaning within the Absolute.

Thirdly, by “Implication” Van Til is referring to an aspect of the Absolute, whereby one part of the Absolute always implies another part. Implication allows us to move throughout a system of truth from one truth to any other within that system. This is why Van Til points out that “implication is really borrowed from the a priori rather than from the a posteriori aspect of [Bosanquet’s] method”. Implication is a function of the a priori system of the whole of reality.

Fourthly, what is this “eternal aspect to reality” that Van Til finds in Bosanquet’s thought? Van Til understands Bosanquet’s Absolute to be eternal, as is T. H. Green’s “eternal consciousness”, or Hegel’s Geist. For only if the Absolute is eternal can it be a complete system of facts and, therefore, the foundation of knowledge at all times. The disappearing of the Absolute would create an epistemological black hole.

Lastly, Van Til claims that, for Bosanquet, “reality is an eternal novelty”, an eternal novelty and an eternal novelty. To help us understand this, we will use Bosanquet’s own example of an eternal novelty, which is the mathematical equation “7+5=12”. On the surface, this appears a simple matter. Yet one reviewer stated in 1922:

In the correct analysis of such a simple proposition [Bosanqet] finds the clue, not only to logic, but to the profoundest problems of metaphysics. On the view which we take of the function of thought in the making of such judgements will depend our attitude to the problems of time, of change, of novelty and necessity, of the relation of mind to its objects, of the relation religion to morality.

To explain Bosanquet’s point in a few sentences is a hopeless task. I’ll concern myself with Bosanquet’s general point: Reality contains within itself change (novelty) and progress yet, as a whole, it maintains its identity. By this, Bosanquet upholds the changeless, eternal character of the Absolute but yet accommodate novelty, progress and difference within reality – something which some other “extreme” (Bosanquet’s word) philosophies do not permit. When we make a judgement that 12 is the same as 7+5 we have an example of an eternal novelty, Bosanquet would say.

After all that, Van Til’s very simple point is this: the a priori of the British Idealists (the Absolute) is radically different from the a priori of Christian theism (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).

The Method of Systematic Theology

Van Til claims that “the method of Christian theism [is] the method of implication” (Introduction, p27). By this, Van Til means a combination of a priori and a posteriori approaches to systematic theology. Putting things simply, a priori knowledge is independent of experience (literally:”from what is before”), while a posteriori knowledge depends upon or is drawn from experience (literally: “from what is after”).

In this context, “a priori” refers to the body of facts received by revelation and which is therefore prior to experience. The truths of Scripture are first revealed by God to Man, and only then encountered by Man. There are many more facts available to us, but those contained in Scripture are not dependent upon nor drawn from our own experience.

Secondly, the Christian method possesses an a priori element since we interpret the facts of nature and experience in the light of a priori revelation:

“It may be admitted that the truths which the theologian has to reduce to a science, or, to speak more humbly, which he has to arrange and harmonize, are revealed partly in the external works of God, partly in the constitution of our nature, and partly in the religious experience of believers; yet lest we should err in our inferences from the works of God, we have a clearer revelation of all that nature reveals, in his word; and lest we should misinterpret our own consciousness and the laws of our nature, everything that can be legitimately learned from that source will be found recognized and authenticated in the Scriptures; and lest we should attribute to the teaching of the Spirit the operations of our own natural affections, we find in the Bible the norm and standard of all genuine religious experience.” (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:12 [Ages Software, 2005])

On the other hand, the Christian method also has an a posteriori element. This refers to the “gathering and arranging of the facts of Scripture” (Introduction, p27). Hodge says such a collection must be i) conducted with diligence and care ii) be “comprehensive and, if possible, exhaustive” since:

“An imperfect induction of facts led men for ages to believe that the sun moved round the earth, and that the earth was an extended plain. In theology a partial induction of particulars has led to like serious errors.” (ibid, 1:13)

After all, it will be impossible to defend error.

Van Til continues by arguing that it is not enough for the Christian method to possess both an a priori element and an a posteriori element, since some flavours of idealism also embraces both. He then goes on to critique Idealism, which I will save for another time.

Systematic Theology and Apologetics

Van Til engages with the view of B. B. Warfield concerning the relation of systematic theology to apologetics and the nature of apologetics itself (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p17-19). Van Til considered Warfield’s distinction between the method of systematic theology and the method of apologetics as mistaken.

For example, Warfield considers apologetics to be prior to systematic theology:

“…apologetics supplies to Christian men the systematically organized basis on which the faith of Christian men must rest.” (Apologetics, Works, Vol.9)

“Apologetical Theology prepares the way for all theology by establishing its necessary presuppositions without which no theology is possible — the existence and essential nature of God,  the religious nature of man which enables him to receive a revelation from God, the possibility of a revelation and its actual realization in the Scriptures. It thus places the Scriptures in our hands for investigation and study.” (The Idea of Systematic Theology, Works, Vol.9)

The discipline of systematic theology, therefore, does have presuppositions (the existence of God and the infallible revelation of Himself in Scripture, etc), but its work would be a speculative exercise unless these presuppositions were established by the work of apologetics. But on what basis does apologetics establish their truth? By drawing upon the historical and natural sciences, according to Warfield. According to this method, apologetics is necessarily presuppositionless.

However, Van Til claims:

Warfield often argues as though apologetics must use a method of approach to the natural man that the other disciplines need not and cannot use… All the disciplines [including apologetics] must presuppose God, but, at the same time, presupposition is the best proof. Apologetics takes particular pains to show that such is the case. (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p18-19)

And concludes by stating that:

“…apologetics stands at the outer edge of the circle of systematic truth given us by systematics in order to defend it.”(ibid, p19)

In summary: For Warfield, apologetics establishes the truth of the presuppositions of systematic theology. For Van Til, apologetics defends the truth of those presuppositions.

Van Til’s Presuppositions

At the beginning of Chapter 1 of his “An Introduction to Systematic Theology” Van Til immediately states the main presuppositions upon which all apologetic activity – ultimately, all rational thought – rests.

Firstly, God exists. Secondly, He has revealed himself to Man in Scripture. Thirdly, Van Til presupposes that Reformed theology is the most consistent and complete systematization of Biblical truth (although he would surely claim that this point is demonstrable rather than merely a presupposition). Systematic theology is that discipline which considers Scriptural revelation as a whole and the truth about God then ordered into a coherent system. This point is important since the task of apologetics is to defend such a system of truth, not merely isolated propositions or facts.

To defend a false system of truth using the presuppositional method will necessarily fail since such a system will, at some point or other, be shown to be self-contradictory. To defend only a part of Scriptural truth will also fail unless that part gains its meaning from the wider context of the whole counsel of God. Defending the Christian “system” as a whole is a key step in the presuppostional apologetic method.

Scripture is not Man-centered. Nor, Van Til says, is it Christ-centered. Scripture is God-centered. Although it is true that we can only come to a knowledge of God through Christ alone, Christ is himself fully God and an inseparable member of the Godhead. All of Christ’s work, and the role that Man plays in the history of redemption, is a means to an end: to reveal and to glorify God.

Before we engage in an apologetic defense of the system of truth as expressed by Reformed theology, we must come to a knowledge of God. Scriptural revelation must not return to Him void, if that were possible. Truth is not merely to be defended but known, understood and believed. Our goal is to gain knowledge of the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture, first and foremost.