Category Archives: Van Til Stuff

Van Til: “Historical Apologetics is Absolutely Necessary”

As I’ve noted on past occasions, the Reformed apologist and theologian Cornelius Van Til is often represented as a fideist, one that rejects rational and historical evidences for the truth of Christianity. This error has turned away a fair number of apologetics students from taking his work seriously. It’s made him a boogey man of sorts. While it’s true that historical apologetics was neither a strong suite nor a topic of emphasis in Van Til’s work, his statements on the subject are anything but obscure.

Historical apologetics is absolutely necessary and indispensable to point out that Christ arose from the grave, etc. But as long as historical apologetics works on a supposedly neutral basis, it defeats its own purpose. For in that case it virtually grants the validity of the meta- physical assumptions of the unbeliever. So in this case a pragmatist may accept the resurrection of Christ as a fact without accepting the conclusion that Christ is the Son of God. And on his assumptions he is not illogical in doing so. On the contrary, if his basic metaphysical assumption to the effect that all reality is subject to chance is right, he is only consistent if he refuses to conclude from the fact of Christ’s resurrection that he is divine in the orthodox sense of the term. Now, though he is wrong in his metaphysical assumption, and though, rightly interpreted, the resurrection of Christ assuredly proves the divinity of Christ, we must attack the unbeliever in his philosophy of fact, as well as on the question of the actuality of the facts themselves. For on his own metaphysical assumptions, the resurrection of Christ would not prove his divinity at all.

In addition to showing that Christ actually arose from the grave and that the facts recorded in the Scripture are as they are recorded as being, insofar as this can be ascertained by historical research, we must show that the philosophy of fact as held to by Christian the- ism is the only philosophy that can account for the facts. And these two things must be done in conjunction with one another. Historical apologetics becomes genuinely fruitful only if it is conjoined with philosophical apologetics. And the two together will have to begin with Scripture, and argue that unless what Scripture says about itself and all things else of which it speaks is true, nothing is true. Unless God as an absolutely self-conscious person exists, no facts have any meaning. This holds not only for the resurrection of Christ, but for any other fact as well.

-Cornelius Van Til,  An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 242-243

As always, Van Til is concerned that evidence not be presented as if it were neutral. But this concern doesn’t lead him to reject historical apologetics altogether. Where there are attacks on particular historical claims of the Bible the apologist is charged to take up that cause and defend the faith. We are to demonstrate that objections against Christianity fail. Van Til affirms this strongly. But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to show not only that the objection fails, but also that the worldview assumptions underlying the objection destroy the very possibility of knowledge.

Van Til on Common Grace

I’ve discussed the biblical doctrine of common grace elsewhere, but here are The wise words of Cornelius Van Til on the subject:

Common grace is [God’s] favor to sinners by which they are kept from working out to the full the principle of sin within them and thereby are enabled to show some measure of involuntary respect and appreciation for the law of God that speaks to them even through their own constitution, as well as through the facts of the world outside.

-Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 55.

Knowing God in Two Senses

Here Van Til makes an important distinction in man’s knowledge of God:

The difficulty with respect to the natural man’s knowledge of God may be somewhat alleviated if we remember that there are two senses in which we may speak of his having knowledge. The natural man has knowledge, true knowledge of God, in the sense that God through nature and man’s own consciousness impresses his presence on man’s attention. So definitely and inescapably has he done this and that, try as he may, man cannot escape knowing God. It is this point that Paul stresses in the first two chapters of Romans 1. Man has the sense of deity indelibly engraved upon him. He knows God and he knows himself and the world as God’s creation. This is objective revelation to him. Even to the extent that this revelation is in man, in his own constitution, and as such may be called “subjective” it is none the less objective to him as an ethically responsible creature, and he is bound to react as an ethical person to this objective revelation.

But it is this objective revelation both about and within him that the natural man seeks to suppress. Having made alliance with Satan, man makes a grand monistic assumption. Not merely in his conclusion but as well in his method and starting point he takes for granted his own ultimacy. To the extent that he works according to this monistic assumption he misinterprets all things, flowers no less than God. Fortunately the natural man is never fully consistent while in this life. As the Christian sins against his will, so the natural man “sins against” his own essentially Satanic principle. As the Christian has the incubus of his “old man” weighing him down and therefore keeping him from realizing the “life of Christ” within him, so the natural man has the incubus of the sense of deity weighing him down and keeping him from realizing the life of Satan within him.

The actual situation is therefore always a mixture of truth with error. Being “without God in the world” the natural man yet knows God, and, in spite of himself, to some extent recognizes God. By virtue of their creation in God’s image, by virtue of the ineradicable sense of deity within them and by virtue of God’s restraining general grace, those who hate God, yet in a restricted sense know God, and do good.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 65.

Creatures have No Private Chambers

Van Til on the clarity of God revelation in nature:

Nature can and does reveal nothing but the one comprehensive plan of God. The Psalmist does not say that the heavens possibly or probably declare the glory of God. Nor does the apostle assert that the wrath of God is probably revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Scripture takes the clarity of God’s revelation for granted at every stage of human history. Even when man, as it were, takes out his own eyes, this act itself turns revelational in his wicked hands, testifying to him that his sin is a sin against the light that lighteth every man coming into the world. Even to the very bottom of the most complex historical situations, involving sin and all its consequences, God’s revelation shines with unmistakable clarity. “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). Creatures have no private chambers.

-Cornelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture, 8-9

Every fact in creation serves as evidence for the wisdom and character (let alone existence!) of God. We can’t escape the facts because all facts get their meaning from God.

Intellectual Sense,”Giving Reasons,” and the Christian Worldview

If Cornelius Van Til was known for anything, it was making provocative statements. Here’s just one:

The whole notion of ‘giving reasons’ is completely destroyed by any ontology other than the Christian one.

Greg Bahnsen unpacks Van Til’s claim:

According to Van Til, the Christian claim (that non-Christians already know God from natural revelation and also recognize the voice of God in Scripture) is justified because the knowledge of God is the context and prerequisite for knowing anything else whatsoever. Without presupposing God, it is impossible to make theoretical sense out of any rational method for “justifying” beliefs of any kind on any subject. As the apostle Paul indicated, by suppressing the truth about God that they clearly and directly know, unbelievers have their reasoning reduced to foolishness (Rom. 1:21-22). If they do not acknowledge knowing God, they cannot make intellectual sense out of God’s world or out of themselves as God’s image-bearers. Likewise, Paul taught that those who reject the word of the cross (which is needed to repair man’s stubborn refusal to submit to the light of God) are reduced to foolishness in their thinking and living (1 Cor. 1:20). Their attempts to warrant what they believe and do–indeed, to know anything–are futile deceptions apart from that philosophy which is “according to Christ,” in whom “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge are deposited” (Col. 2:3, 8). The Christian message, whether it be the truth about the Creator communicated in natural revelation or the saving truth of the gospel declared in Scripture, was defended by Van Til as the necessary precondition for rationally justifying any claim to knowledge about anything else. Van Til: “In fact it then appears that the argument for the Scriptures as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God.”

– Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis,  262-263 (emphasis added)

All Knowledge of God is Covenant Knowledge

In the following quotation Van Til makes clear that all knowledge of God is covenantal. Either we know God “in Adam”, according to the rebellion of our hearts, or we know God “in Christ,” according to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit:

God has never left himself without a witness to men. He witnessed to them through every fact of the universe from the beginning of time. No rational creature can escape this witness. It is the witness of the triune God whose face is before men everywhere and all the time. Even the lost in the hereafter cannot escape the revelation of God. God made man a rational-moral creature. He will always be that. As such he is confronted with God. He is addressed by God. He exists in the relationship of covenant interaction. He is a covenant being. To not know God man would have to destroy himself. He cannot do this. There is no non-being into which man can slip in order to escape God’s face and voice. The mountains will not cover him; Hades will not hide him. Nothing can prevent his being confronted “with him with whom we have to do.” Whenever he sees himself, he sees himself confronted with God.

Whatever may happen, whatever sin may bring about, whatever havoc it may occasion, it cannot destroy man’s knowledge of God and his sense of responsibility to God. Sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God. Even sin as a process of ever-increasing alienation from God presupposes for its background this knowledge of God.

This knowledge is that which all men have in common. For the race of men is made of one blood. It stood as a unity before God in Adam. This confrontation of all men with God in Adam by supernatural revelation presupposes and is correlative to the confrontation of mankind with God by virtue of creation. If then the believer presents to the unbeliever the Bible and its system of truth as God speaking to men, he may rest assured that there is a response in the heart of every man to whom he thus speaks. This response may be, and often is, unfavorable. Men will reject the claims of God but, none the less, they will own them as legitimate. That is, they will in their hearts, when they cannot suppress them, own these claims. There are no atheists, least of all in the hereafter. Metaphysically speaking then, both parties, believers and unbelievers, have all things in common; they have God in common, they have every fact in the universe in common. And they know they have them in common. All men know God, the true God, the only God. They have not merely a capacity for knowing him but actually do know him.

Thus there is not and can never be an absolute separation between God and man. Man is always accessible to God.

– Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 176-177. Emphasis added.

What Sinners Ought to Know from Natural Revelation

A foundational text undergirding the presuppositional approach to apologetic is Romans chapter 1, specifically verses 18-32. There Paul teaches that all people have an implanted knowledge of God. They don’t merely know that God exists, but they personally know God (as enemy and opponent). God has revealed himself to them in what he has made. Likewise, they not only know God they also know something of his moral demands and that their violation of such demands warrants death (v. 32). Is there anything more to this knowledge? In this often neglected passage, Cornelius Van Til teases how some of what sinful man ought to know about God based on general revelation:

In the first place, he ought to think of God as the creator of this world. In the second place, he ought to believe in the providence of God. In third place, you have to think of the presence of a certain non-saving grace of God. At this last point is true follows for the fact that it is logically involved in the creation idea. If God is the creator of the world, he existed in complete self-sufficiency before the world was. There could be no evil in God; evil would have destroyed God’s self-sufficiency. Accordingly, evil must have come in by the hand of man. [Fourth] Thus logic should have driven men to see the truth of the tradition of the original perfection and the fall of man, and the tradition should have corroborated the logic. To quote Calvin in this connection, “Paul, accordingly, after reminding the Athenians that they ‘might feel after God and find him,’ immediately adds, that ‘he is not far from every one of us’ (Acts 17:27) everyman having within himself undoubted evidence of the heavenly grace by which he lives and moves and has his being” (Institutes 1.5.3).

In the fifth place, we believe men should even have concluded that somewhere in this world they had to be a manifestation of God’s special grace. Non-saving grace could not function without saving grace: “common” grace is not in end in itself, but only a means by which a field may be prepared for the operation of special grace. It is not a valid argument against this contention to say that no one could in advance of this coming argue for the necessity of a gift of grace, since grace is a free gift. We do not say that men ought to have been able to argue in advance that grace should come. We say rather that the world as a matter of fact exist in the way it did by virtue of grace alone as soon as it fell into sin. Moreover, mankind as a whole was brought face to face with the fact of special grace at the time of Cain, and again at time of Noah. Men ought to have seen that a sinful world cannot exist except by the presence of grace in it. Finally, in the sixth place, we may say that men ought to have concluded that the outcome of his failure to recognize the God whom he should serve would be his condemnation in eternal punishment. If they ought to know God as their Creator and ought to know him as the one from whom they had revolted, they ought also to conclude that this creator would put sinners out of his presence forever.

-Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena to the Doctrine of Revelation, Scripture, and God (2nd. Ed), 145-146.

The Offensiveness of a Consistent Apologetic

This is the kind of message apologists need to hear:

It is true that no method of argument for Christianity will be acceptable to the natural man. Moreover, it is true that the more consistently Christian our methodology, the less acceptable it will be to the natural man. We find something similar in the field of theology. It is precisely the Reformed Faith which, among other things, teaches the total depravity of the natural man, which is most loathsome to that natural man. But this does not prove that the Reformed Faith is not true. A patient may like a doctor who tells him that his disease can be cured by means of external applications and dislike the doctor who tells him that he needs a major internal operation. Yet the latter doctor may be right in his diagnosis. …… It is upon the power of the Holy Spirit that the Reformed preacher relies when he tells men that they are lost in sin and in need of a Savior. The Reformed preacher does not tone down his message in order that it may find acceptance with the natural man. He does not say that his message is less certainly true because of its nonacceptance by the natural man.

-Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

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.

Happy 117th, Dr. Van Til!

Today is the 117th birthday of Reformed theologian and apologist Cornelius Van TIil (1895-1987). Van Til is well known as a Christian thinker who wanted to hold forth the supremacy, sovereignty, and self-sufficiency of God above all things. His entire adult life was devoted to thinking through what Christian philosophy and apologetics would look like if they were consistent with a robust Reformed theology.

In honor of this day, I draw your attention to my 3 part introduction to Van Til’s thought: here, here, and here)

For those interested in learning more about Van Til’s life and thought, see the following (click on the picture for more information):

God and the Bible Go Together…Even in Apologetics

In the following quote Cornelius Van Til makes the important (and often overlooked or downright denied) point that a truly Christian argument for the Christian God (and by Christian here, I mean an argument that is faithful to the entirety of Scripture) is likewise, at the same time, an argument for the truth of the Christian Scriptures and our concept of revelation. If you lose one, you lose the other. If you establish the one you’ve established the other:

Incidentally we remark that our acceptance of the Scriptures does not depend upon our argument for the absolute God and our argument for the absolute God does not depend upon our acceptance of the Scriptures. We say that one does not depend upon the other because they are mutually involved in one another and quite inseparable. Our concept of God as absolute is a matter of fact taught nowhere but in Scripture. That is as we should expect, since Scripture itself is necessary because of man’s departure from the knowledge of God. Scripture is nothing but God’s self – testimony to the sinner as once God’s self – testimony came to man through man’s own consciousness and through God’s thought communication in paradise. Hence too it is only by his internal testimony in our hearts, that is, through the regeneration wrought by the Holy Spirit that we believe his own external testimony as it lies before us in scripture. (Cornelius Van Til, Psychology of Religion)

Take note of Van Til ties the personal revelation of God to Adam in the garden of Eden (“God’s thought communication in paradise”) with God’s revelation in the Bible. In both cases we find God’s personal address to humanity that conveys solid content (as opposed to merely “a relationship” or “encounter”). But he goes further to note that this disclosure of a) relationship and b) information was successful. It moved from being “out there” to “man’s consciousness.” This is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 1. Every person already has a “personal relationship” with God. The question is whether that relationship consists of knowing God as enemy or knowing him as Lord and friend.

Extra-Scriptural Information and the Supremacy of the Bible

Lately, I’ve been rereading John Frame’s 1976 article “Van Til: The Theologian” (originally published as “The Problem of Theological Paradox” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship) In the article, Frame expounds and expands on Cornelius Van Til’s distinctive contribution to Christian theology and apologetics (I’ve provided my own introductions to the major themes of Van Til’s thought here, here, and here).

From pages 25-27 Frame discusses the use of extra-biblical material in the interpretation of Scripture. The balance between honoring extra-scriptural information on the one hand and honoring the supremacy of the Bible on the other is refreshing. Frame begins:

…we need not be embarrassed about using extra-scriptural information to interpret Scripture. If indeed the creation were somehow autonomous, then we might fear that the use of such data might to some extent hide the full truth of God’s revelation. But creation is not independent of God.

Yet Frame’s robust affirmation of using extra-scriptural information to help interpret Scripture never compromises sola Scriptura (Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and life):

Even when we use extra-scriptural information (as we must) to understand Scripture, we must hold loosely to this information–loosely enough to allow Scripture to call it in question. It is only when our methods of Scripture interpretation are themselves purified by Scripture that real progress can be made in theology.

The entire article is a great read, and I encourage you to dive in.

Leithart on Van Til

From Peter Leithart:

Based on a student’s questioning, I’m wondering whether “presuppositionalism” is the best term to describe what Vantillians are after. We don’t, after all, come up with some kind of set of axioms or theological idea “prior” to receiving revelation. We can talk about making the Triune God our “starting point” as much as we want, but faith in the Triune God is not in fact the “starting point” of our thinking (in either a chronological or logical sense). I like Frame’s revisionist view that “presuppositions” are really “basic commitments,” but that still seems to individualistic to me. I’d rather think of how we can ecclesiologize Van Til: Instead of saying that “all our thinking is grounded in the presupposition of the Triune God of Scripture,” we might say “as Christians we think and act from within the Church, which is the body of Christ and the community of worshipers of the Triune God.” This moves Van Til in the direction of postliberals and postmoderns, but that’s not a bad move in this case I think.

Food for Thought!

Van Til and Evidence

Recently, on a blog that I frequent the author made a familiar claim about Cornelius Van Til. Essentially the author’s point was that Van Til rejected the use of evidence for Christianity. in light of the paper i’m working on, I thought I should reply. Here’s what I wrote:

Dr. _________, thanks for the post, but sadly you insist on a misrepresentation on Van Til’s views that goes back nearly 40 years to Clark Pinnock’s entry in the book honoring Van Til, Jerusalem and Athens. You say that offering evidence for Christianity is inconsistant with being a presuppositionalist.

In the words of Van Til himself, “Accordingly I do not reject ‘the theistic proofs’ but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of Scripture. That is to say, if the theistic proof is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid, whatever the attitude of those to whom it comes may be.” (Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. 197)

Here Van Til makes it clear that he does not reject theistic evidences. Thisn is not to deny that he rejects their presentation in a certain manner. That’s the issue of debate. But to insist that he rejects proof or evidence is to mishandle his Van Til’s words, as well as those of his interpreters (cf. Thom Notaro, Van Til and the use of Evidence).

Those who label themselves presuppositionalists and yet reject the use of evidences are doing harm to Van Til’s project and have made something that was a major emphasis into the whole shabang.

Was Cornelius Van Til a Foundationalist?

One reoccurring critique by postmodernists is this: the dominant epistemological model of modern period, classic foundationalism, is a hopelessly doomed project. Many analytic philosophers have conceded the fact that foundationalism, in the sense critiqued by postmodernists, is not workable or realistic. In response to this critique many such epistemologists have proposed a modest foundationalism. This approach opens up space for for defining a “properly basic belief.” Is Cornelius Van Til’s epistemology subject to the postmodern critique of classic foundationalism? Is it even accurate to categorize Van Til’s position as foundationalist? I am tempted to say both yes and no.

First, let’s examine what I mean what I answer “no” to the question above. Classical foundationalism seeks some epistemological bedrock upon which their entire epistemological structures could be erected. Traditionally, there are 2 major camps under the larger foundationalist umbrella (though, in reality, there are literally dozens of ways of cutting the foundationalist pie). Theses schools of thought, empiricism and rationalism, despite their differences, shared methodological commitments to certain and indubitable knowledge.  The rationalists rooted their position in clear and distinct ideas, while the empiricists looked to basic sense impressions on the “blank-slate” of human consciousness. If some aspect of human knowledge could be proven to be beyond doubt, self-evident and subject to open inquiry the trustworthiness of human knowledge would be maintained. The problem with this project, from a Van Tillian perspective, is that both schools seek an epistemic  pou stou 1) apart from the God’s word, and 2) as a way of preserving sinful autonomy (i.e. intellectual independence from God and His authority).

Van Til clearly rejects this project and instead presents the self-attesting revelation of God in the Scriptures as our epistemic bedrock. We shouldn’t look to anything in creation to ground knowledge.  No finite thing can provide epistemic certainty. Instead, despite our finitude and sin, we are to turn to Scripture for guidance and be content with the supernatural certitude that comes only by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

But does Van TIl’s approach leave us hopelessly agnostic, lacking any kind of confidence regarding the veracity of our knowing? No, Van Til was no relativist. Instead, he presents us with a theological framework for making sense of our everyday confidence in our cognitive faculties. This leads me to the affirmative aspect of my answer to our original question.

Is it even accurate to categorize Van Til’s position as foundationalist? Perhaps, but not in the sense open to postmodern criticism. Recall that classic foundationalism is an epistemological position. But, we’ve seen above that Van Til rejects the modernist’s notion of rooting certitude in anything in creation. Instead, we find our confidence in the living God. Van Til’s position is that knowledge is “saved” because God exists and we are created in His image (in fact for VT this fact is turned into a powerful theistic argument. For handy summary of VT’s “argument from unity of knowledge,” see James Anderson, “If Knowledge, then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til,” Calvin Theological Journal, April, 2005.).

God providentially guides and preserves our knowledge to an overwhelmingly great degree. Thus, for theological reasons, we can have confidence in our knowledge. But this is no onto-theological leap by which VT calls God into the picture simply to fill in the gaps of his philosophy. Instead, this lies at the very heart of VT’s philosophy. Functionally, because of our creationally constituted knowledge of God, we are always, whether believer or non-believer, in contact with God. The reason why VT’s epistemology escapes the postmodern barbs against modernist foundationalism is because, though we have metaphysical confidence, epistemologically we have no direct or unmediated knowledge of the world. We all have baggage, whether that manifests as misleading worldviews or inconsistent heart-commitments. Of course, this is not to say that our situatedness in an inherent impediment against obtaining true knowledge (cf. Vern S. Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, 66.), but this is a point against attaining the impenetrable, philosophically certain knowledge modernism sought. Secondly, how the surpressed knowledge of God concretely plays out in our lives is very difficult to express. It’s so common to our everyday experience that reflective contemplation of it is akin to a fish examining the water it swims in. Though this is a rough-and-ready term, perhaps we can call this cognitive intuition.

Instead, we can categorize Van Til as a soft foundationalist, which is not open to postmodern critique. So, our confidence is in the power of God, and not our epistemic equipment. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.