The Lord of Apologetics

In the words of 1 Peter 3:15, the personal prerequisite for offering a reasoned defense of the Christian faith is to have “set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts.” Christ must be the ultimate authority over our philosophy, our reasoning, and our argumentation–not just at the end, but at the beginning, of the apologetical endeavor. If we are to “cast down reasonings and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God,” said Paul, then we must “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ”  (2 Cor. 10:5). An ultimate commitment to Christ covers the entire range of human activity, including every aspect of intellectual endeavor. To reason in a way that does not recognize this is to transgress the first and great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with … all your mind” (Mt. 22:37). In light of this, our apologetical method, not merely our apologetical conclusions, should be controlled by the word of God.”

Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (P&R, 1998), p2.

Van Til’s Circular Meanderings

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. But since I believe in such a God, a God who has conditioned you as well as me, I know that you can to your own satisfaction, by the help of the biologists, the psychologists, the logicians, and the Bible critics reduce everything I have said … to the circular meanderings of a hopeless authoritarian. Well, my meanderings have, to be sure, been circular; they have made everything turn on God. So now I shall leave you with Him, and with His mercy.

Van Til, Why I Believe In God. Quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (1998), p143.

Everyone has an ultimate authority. To be consistent, reasoning will necessarily circle around that authority. The only difference between us is the particular authority we have chosen to circle around.

So, is circular reasoning the only thing Presuppositionalism has to offer? No. Van Til in the above quotation points to a transcendental argument, not a circular argument, as the best apologetic for the Christian God.

Kelly James Clark on Presuppositionalism

Clark is no fan of presuppositionalism. Here are some quotes from Stephen B. Cowan (ed.), Five Views on Apologetics. (No idea what the page numbers are. It’s the kindle edition.)

On Van Til:

Although I have read some of the published writings of Cornelius Van Til, presuppositionalism’s founding father, I have always found him baffling. Either I don’t understand what he is saying, or if I do understand it, what he says seems obviously false (or to entail obvious falsehoods) or, at best, arguably true (but seldom argued for). I am puzzled by the steady stream of his followers that has poured out of Westminster Seminary.

On Bahnsen:

I have listened to the tapes (which Frame commends) of the debate between Gregory Bahnsen, presuppositional apologist, and Gordon Stein, defender of atheism. Quite frankly, I found Bahnsen’s arguments precious thin and his approach wearisome – he simply repeated over and over that unbelievers have no grounds for reason and then offered the briefest defense of his view that only Christian theism provides grounds for reason. Van Til, I’m afraid, had a similar awkward tendency to prefer assertion over argument.

Unambiguous, you could say.

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.”

What is a Cow?

“Suppose that I am a scientist investigating the life and ways of a cow. What is this cow? I say it is an animal. But that only pushes the question back. What is an animal? To answer that question I must know what life is. But again, to know what life is I must know how it is related to the inorganic world. And so I may and must continue till I reach the borders of the universe. And even when I have reached the borders of the universe, I do not yet know what the cow is. Complete knowledge of what a cow is can be had only by an absolute intelligence, i.e., by one who has, so to speak, the blueprint of the whole universe. But it does not follow from this that the knowledge of the cow that I have is not true as far as it goes. It is true if it corresponds to the knowledge that God has of the cow.”

From Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology. Quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (1998), p168. Emphasis added.

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.