Introduction to the Thought of Cornelius Van Til: The Nature and Function of Presuppositions
Van Til on the nature and function of presuppositions. VT is commonly labeled the father of presuppositional apologetics. Though he was not the first to expound the idea, his rejection of autonomous thinking has left a lasting imprint upon Christian thinkers. Building off of the biblical teaching that no man can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), he repudiated the thought that man, whether reborn by the Holy Spirit or not, can examine the world around him in isolation from prior determinative worldview considerations. Biblically speaking, the whole world is divided into two camps, those who love God, and those who do not. Neutral ground does not exist. To seek it would be a vain, sinful endeavor. Once a sinner has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit their ultimate heart commitment is to God. Christ Himself is both the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).
For VT, presuppositions determine how we evaluate data. But what he meant by the term has not always been clearly understood. A “presupposition” can mean at least three things. He never explicitly makes this clear, but his usage of the term indicates subtle distinctions. According to the first usage, VT speaks of the underlying awareness of all people, irrespective of regeneration, regarding God. All people, in their “heart of hearts,” know God personally. They know that He exists, has created them for Himself, and requires that they live in a certain fashion (cf. Romans 1:18-32). This type of presupposition is inescapable, and no matter how hard fallen men try to suppress it, they can never quite shake it off. Sometimes they are less self-conscious of it, sometimes more so, but it never goes away. Calvin spoke of this as the “sense of deity” in all men. This usage of the term I will label P1. Knowledge of P1 serves as the metaphysical grounds for what VT spoke of as the “preconditions of intelligibility,” the necessary conditions to make any experience whatsoever intelligible. Second (P2), a presupposition can refer to the underlying system of belief that a person espouses, irrespective of regeneration. This is closely associated with what we think of as “worldview.” Lastly (P3), a presupposition can speak of the ultimate heart commitment of a person. The expression of this heart commitment need not be explicitly or formally religious.
This account of presuppositions leads to the inescapable conclusion that unbelievers operate with two antithetic presuppositions, one that acknowledges God, and the other that denies His epistemic Lordship. By way of contrast, we can see that Christians, by virtue 1) of their creation in God’s image (P1), and 2) because of the redemptive light of scripture and their possession of the Holy Spirit, acknowledge that God is sovereign and the Lord over all (P2). A unified field of knowledge is possible for Christians because both P1 and P2 coinhere, whereas the exact opposite is the case for non-Christians. VT never denied that unbelievers thought logically, reasoned well, or lived moral lives. His pricipal objection to unbelief was (in my language) that only when P1 (the preconditions of intelligibility) is rooted in the triune God of scripture, as it is in Christianity, can the house of knowledge be properly structured. No matter how elaborate a system of unbelief man construes (P2), without rationality, probability, logic, and the uniformity of nature systemically accounted for (P1), all is in vain. Unless the Lord build the house, the workers toil in vain.
Now, let us consider P2. While Christians, because of P1, know God, they nevertheless do not always develop a Biblically faithful worldview. They may know that God is sovereign and King of all things (P1), but their system of interpretation (P2) may prohibit them from putting flesh on that concept, because it cannot account for it. Another example might help. VT often charged Arminians with systemic inconsistency. They hold that God is the ruler of all things (P1), and rightly so, because He is! Yet, their theological system (P2) removes from God the right to turn people’s hearts towards Himself in grace. Their system (P2) doesn’t account for, or render intelligible, their (legitimate) practice of intercessory prayer (based on P1).
Update: For an updated version of this entry, that interacts with the perspectival approach of John Frame, see here.