Van Til’s Presuppositionalism & Frame’s Perspectivalism

The general approach to apologetics advocated on this blog known as presuppositionalism. This method builds off the work of scholars like William Edgar, K. Scott Oliphint, Lane Tipton, Greg Bahnsen, and John M. Frame. But behind them all lies the seminal work of theologian Cornelius Van Til. I’ve provided an intro to Van Til’s thought elsewhere on this blog (here, here, and here) so I won’t do that now.

Van Til’s approach to apologetics is built off the premise that a robust defense of the faith grows from the soil of a carefully nuanced understanding of Christian theology. As Greg Bahnsen used to teach, worldviews are a network of presuppositions. And these worldviews are inherently theological.

But consider this: For Van Til, the term “presupposition” had subtle shades of meaning. This can make reading Van Til (and his disciples) confusing at times. Many never quite makes this distinctions explicit, but a careful study bears out at least a threefold usage. The following is my own expansion of Frame’s exposition in his Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought

  • P1: The first sense of the term underscores the underlying awareness all people have of God, regardless of whether or not they are regenerate. All people, in their heart of hearts, know God, that He exists, has created them for Himself, and requires that they live in a certain fashion (think Romans 1:18-32). This type of presupposition is inescapable, and no matter how hard fallen men and women try to suppress it, they can never quite shake it off. Sometimes they are less self-conscious of it, and sometimes more so, but it never goes away. Calvin spoke of this as the “sense of deity” in all men.

So, for example, Van Til taught, “The non-Christian…even in his virtual negation of God, he is still really presupposing God (Christian Theory of Knowledge, 13).”

  • P2: The second usage of the presupposition refers to someone’s espoused belief-system, whether Christian or non-Christian. This is closely associated with what we think of as a worldview. This is the conscious and theoretical activity of integrating one’s belief about reality, knowledge, and values.

Greg Bahnsen defined a worldview as a network of presuppositions. He taught:

Presuppositions form a wide-ranging foundational perspective or starting point in terms of which everything else we believe is interpreted, in terms of which everything else we believe is evaluated and interrelated. And that’s why presuppositions are said to have the greatest “authority” in one’s thinking. Presuppositions will turn out to be the least negotiable beliefs a person has. People will grant to their presuppositions the highest degree of immunity to revision.

and again,

A worldview is a network of presuppositions that are not tested by natural science and in terms of which all experience is related and interpreted.

  • P3: A person’s ultimate heart commitment. This is largely unconscious pre-theoretical. I think it’s safe to say that when P1 and P3 work in tandem you have the beginning development of P2.

Arguably, John Frame has clarified the heart-nature of presuppositions best:

Perhaps presuppositionalism is more in attitude of the heart, a spiritual condition, than an easily describable, empirical phenomenon. (Apologetics to the Glory of God, 87)

With these distinctions in mind one thing becomes apparent. All unbelievers operate with different kinds of presuppositions.  In one sense (P1) the unbeliever acknowledges God, and in others senses (P2 & P3) they seek to muffle God’s voice and censor his revelation.

I’m going out on the limb here, but to organize this under John Frame’s perspectives, I think we can get along fine this way:

1. P1, Normative: God has created us to think this way;  it’s both a) part of our creational constitution, and b) a result of God’s never-ending revelation.

2. P2, Situational: We develop systems of thought (whether closer to the truth or not) by responding to various issues and concerns of life. For a Christian, we seek to develop a Christian worldview in order to submit our thoughts to God’s revealed word, and ultimately to God Himself. Unbelievers develop various non-Christian worldviews in order to escape God’s revelation in the vain pursuit of autonomy.

3. P3, Existential: This is the deepest drive of our heart. It’s the subjective element in knowing, the giving-over of oneself to something. It’s where P1 and P2 meet. For a Christian, when P1 and P2 meet, there is rejoicing and thanksgiving to God for His grace to us in providing us with His revelation as a sure-footed guide to life and holiness (a wordy sentence, I know!). On the other hand, when P1 and P2 meet for an unbeliever, this drives them, whether self-consciously or not, to run farther and farther away from the God who created them and graciously sustains them. It’s this aspect of the term presupposition that leads to the hostility that we often encounter when speaking with unbelievers. God impinges upon their autonomy, and they will not have it.

Thinking this through. Let’s pursue this line of thinking a bit further. With P1, we can see that all Christians, by virtue 1) creation in God’s image, and 2) their redemption and possession of the Holy Spirit, know that God is sovereign and indeed the King over their lives. God’s authority and His decisions cannot be questioned (Ps. 115:3, 135:6; Dan. 4:35;  Eph. 1:11). All that He does, whether or not we understand it, is good and right (cf. Rom. 9:19-21). This is easily demonstrated, for example, by the fact that even those who do not believe that God ordains all that comes to pass (a Reformed belief), nevertheless do not want to blame God for evil, and speak of God “allowing” evil, etc. They blame people for evil and injustice, but never God. The very notion of God doing something wrong is foreign to them (as it should be). So, in this sense, all believers have an advantage over non-Christian interpreters in handling Scripture (you’ll also notice how closely this is related to P3)

Now, let’s 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) prohibits them from putting flesh on that concept; it simply cannot account for it. Another example might help. Arminians believe that God is the ruler of all things (P1), and rightly so, because he is! Yet, their theological system (P2) deprives God of the right to turn people’s hearts toward himself in grace (Acts 11:18, 16:14; 2 Tim. 2:25). Without this crucial biblical teaching, their system (P2) doesn’t make sense of their intercessory prayer (which is rooted in their P1 knowledge of God).

If I’ve got all my presuppositional ducks in a row, I think this perspectival analysis of the term ‘presupposition’ in the work of Van Til and his disciples potentially does two things. First, it clarifies a lot of insider-speak, and second, it brings to light the subtle nuanced position of presuppositional apologetics.


Posted on November 13, 2012, in John Frame Stuff, Presuppositional apologetics, Van Til Stuff and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great post! We need more people talking about presupp, Van Til, Frame et al!

  2. Thanks for providing such a fine outline. This post is very helpful in explaining the use of terms – which can be a large part of the battle in communicating such to non-presuppers and non-Christians.

  3. Great article! I’m discussing the concept of presuppositions with a friend and needed to put a clear definition on the term. This does it. Thanks.

  1. Pingback: Mid November 2012 Presuppositional apologetics Links « The Domain for Truth

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