Salem Reformed Church
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Van Til's Most Succinct Synopsis: The Total Picture

The following is an excerpt from Greg Bahnsen's Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis; copyright of Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, P.O. Box 817, Philillipsburg, New Jersey 08865-0817. pp. 727-733. Used with permission.

 

A. My problems with the "traditional method."1

  1. This method compromises God himself by maintaining his existence is only "possible" albeit "highly probable," rather than ontologically and "rationally" necessary.
  2. It compromises the counsel of God by not understanding it as the only all-inclusive, ultimate "cause" of whatsoever comes to pass.
  3. It compromises the revelation of God by:
    1. Compromising its necessity. It does so by not recognizing that even in Paradise man had to interpret the general (natural) revelation of God in terms of the covenantal obligations placed upon him by God through special revelation. Natural revelation, on the traditional view, can be understood "on its own."
    2. Compromising its clarity. Both the general and special revelation of God are said to be unclear to the point that man may say only that God's existence is "probable."
    3. Compromising its sufficiency. It does this by allowing for an ultimate realm of "chance" out of which might come "facts" such as are wholly new for God and for man. Such "facts" would be uninterpreted and unexplainable in terms of the general or special revelation of God.
    4. Compromising its authority. On the traditional position the Word of God's self-attesting characteristic, and therewith its authority, is secondary to the authority of reason and experience. The Scriptures do not identify themselves; man identifies them and recognizes their "authority" only in terms of his own authority.
  4. It compromises man's creation as the image of God by thinking of man's creation and knowledge as independent of the Being and knowledge of God. On the traditional approach man need not "think God's thoughts after him."
  5. It compromises man's covenantal relationship with God by not under standing Adam's representative action as absolutely determinative of the future.
  6. It compromises the sinfulness of mankind resulting from the sin of Adam by not understanding man's ethical depravity as extending to the whole of his life, even to his thoughts and attitudes.
  7. It compromises the grace of God by not understanding it as the necessary prerequisite for "renewal unto knowledge." On the traditional view man can and must renew himself unto knowledge by the "right use of reason."

B. My understanding of the relationship between Christian and non-Christian, philosophically speaking.

  1. Both have presuppositions about the nature of reality:
    1. The Christian presupposes the triune God and his redemptive plan for the universe as set forth once for all in Scripture.
    2. The non-Christian presupposes a dialectic between "chance" and "regularity," the former accounting for the origin of matter and life, the latter accounting for the current success of the scientific enterprise.
  2. Neither can, as finite beings, by means of logic as such, say what reality must be or cannot be.
    1. he Christian, therefore, attempts to understand his world through the observation and logical ordering of facts in self-conscious subjection to the plan of the self-attesting Christ of Scripture.
    2. The non-Christian, while attempting an enterprise similar to the Christian's, attempts nevertheless to use "logic" to destroy the Christian position. On the one hand, appealing to the non-rationality of "matter," he says that the chance-character of "facts" is conclusive evidence against the Christian position. Then, on the other hand, he maintains like Parmenides that the Christian story cannot possibly be true. Man must be autonomous, "logic" must be legislative as to the field of "possibility" and possibility must be above God.
  3. Both claim that their position is "in accordance with the facts.
    1. The Christian claims this because he interprets the facts and his experience in the light of the revelation of the self-attesting Christ in Scripture. Both the uniformity and the diversity of facts have at their foundation the all-embracing plan of God.
    2. The non-Christian claims this because he interprets the facts and his experience in the light of the autonomy of human personality, the ultimate "givenness" of the world and the amenability of matter to mind. There can be no fact that denies man's autonomy or attests to the world's and man's divine origin.
  4. 4. Both claim that their position is "rational."
    1. The Christian does so by claiming not only that his position is selfconsistent but that he can explain both the seemingly "inexplicable" amenability of fact to logic and the necessity and usefulness of rationality itself in terms of Scripture.
    2. The non-Christian may or may not make this same claim. If he does, the Christian maintains that he cannot make it good. If the nonChristian attempts to account for the amenability of fact to logic in terms of the ultimate rationality of the cosmos, then he will be crippled when it comes to explaining the "evolution" of men and things. If he attempts to do so in terms of pure "chance" and ultimate "irrationality" as being the well out of which both rational man and a rationally amenable world sprang, then we shall point out that such an explanation is in fact no explanation at all and that it destroys predication.

C. My proposal, therefore, for a consistently Christian methodology of apologetics is this:

  1. That we use the same principle in apologetics that we use in theology: the self-attesting, self-explanatory Christ of Scripture.
  2. That we no longer make an appeal to "common notions" which Christian and non-Christian agree on, but to the "common ground" which they actually have because man and his world are what Scripture says they are.
  3. That we appeal to man as man, God's image. We do so only it we set the non-Christian principle of the rational autonomy of man against the Christian principle of the dependence of man's knowledge on God's knowledge as revealed in the person and by the Spirit of Christ.
  4. That we claim, therefore, that Christianity alone is reasonable for men to hold. It is wholly irrational to hold any other position than that of Christianity. Christianity alone does not slay reason on the altar of "chance."
  5. That we argue, therefore, by "presupposition." The Christian, as did Tertullian, must contest the very principles of his opponent's position. The only "proof" of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of "proving" anything at all. The actual state of affairs as preached by Christianity is the necessary foundation of "proof" itself.
  6. That we preach with the understanding that the acceptance of the Christ of Scripture by sinners who, being alienated from God, seek to flee his face, comes about when the Holy Spirit, in the presence of inescapably clear evidence, opens their eyes so that they see things as they truly are.
  7. That we present the message and evidence for the Christian position as clearly as possible, knowing that because man is what the Christian says he is, the non-Christian will be able to understand in an intellectual sense the issues involved. In so doing, we shall, to a large extent, be telling him what he "already knows" but seeks to suppress. This "reminding" process provides a fertile ground for the Holy Spirit, who in sovereign grace may grant the non-Christian repentance so that he may know him who is life eternal.

The Issue of Success in Apologetics: Humbly, Boldly Reasoning With the Willfully Blind2

As a hater of God he does not want to hear about God. The natural man seeks to suppress the pressure of God's revelation in nature that is about him. He seeks to suppress the pressure of conscience within him. So he also seeks to suppress the idea of the revelation of grace that speaks in Scripture. In every case it is God as his Creator and as his judge that asks of him to listen and be obedient. How can the autonomous man be obedient on his own assumptions? He cannot be obedient unless he reverses his entire position, and this he cannot do of himself. It takes the regenerating power of the Spirit to do that.

 

Having reached this point the Roman Catholic and the Arminian may argue that it was in the interest of avoiding this very impasse that they sought to make their point of contact with the natural man on a neutral basis. The reply of the Reformed apologist is as follows. Good preaching, he will say, will recognize the truth of Scripture that man has been blinded by sin, and that his will is perverted toward seeking self instead of God. But how can deaf ears hear, and blind eyes see? That is to say preaching is confronted with the same dilemma as is apologetical reasoning. In both cases the Roman Catholic and the Arminian tone down the facts of the gospel in order to gain acceptance for them on the part of the natural man. In neither case will the Reformed apologist do so. In both cases he will challenge the natural man at the outset. Both in preaching and in reasoning-and every approach to the natural man should be both-the Reformed theologian will ask the sinner to do what he knows the sinner of himself cannot do. The Reformed Christian is often Reformed in preaching and Arminian in reasoning. But when he is at all self-conscious in his reasoning he will seek to do in apologetics what he does in preaching. He knows that man is responsible not in spite of but just because he is not autonomous but created. He knows that the idea of analogical or covenant personality is that which alone preserves genuine significance for the thoughts and deeds of man. So he also knows that he who is dead in trespasses and sins is none the less responsible for his deadness. He knows also that the sinner in the depth of his heart knows that what is thus held before him is true. He knows he is a creature of God; he has been simply seeking to cover up this fact to himself. He knows that he has broken the law of God; he has again covered up this fact to himself. He knows that he is therefore guilty and is subject to punishment forever; this fact too he will not look in the face.

 

And it is precisely Reformed preaching and Reformed apologetic that tears the mask off the sinner's face and compels him to look at himself and the world for what they really are. Like a mole the natural man seeks to scurry under ground every time the facts as they really are come to his attention. He loves the darkness rather than the light. The light exposes him to himself. And precisely this neither Roman Catholic nor Arminian preaching or reasoning is able to do.

 

As to the possibility and likelihood of the sinner's accepting the Christian position, it must be said that this is a matter of the grace of God ...."Ye are my witnesses." That is the word of the covenant God to those he has redeemed. They are such and can be such only if they bear witness to a God who cannot do otherwise than bear witness of himself by means of himself. Christians can bear witness of this God only if they humbly but boldly make the claim that only on the presupposition of the existence of this God and of the universe in all its aspects as the revelation of this God is there any footing and verge for the interpretative efforts of man ....

Scripture teaches us to speak and preach to, as well as to r eason with blind men, because God, in whose name we speak and reason, can cause the blind to see. Jesus told Lazarus while dead to arise and come forth from the grave. The prophet preached to the dead bones in the valley till they took on flesh. So our reasoning and our preaching is not in vain inasmuch as God in Christ reasons and preaches through us. Once we were blind; God reasoned with us, perhaps through some human agency, and we saw.3

 

The Covenantal Work of Apologetics: Blessing and Curse4

How awesome then the responsibility of the Christian. He must proclaim the Christ as the only name given under heaven by which man, the whole man, by which mankind, with its cultural task, must be saved from sin unto God. What a joy to tell the scientist and the philosopher that they may labor for eternity if only they will labor for the Christ. But when the Christian does thus witness to the promise of great joy that is in the Christ who saves the whole man with the whole of his culture, then inevitably what is a "promise" to some becomes a "curse" to others. Paul says:

 

"Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life" (II Cor. 2:1416).

 

Even as some accept, so also others reject the word of God's grace. To then the Word becomes a savour of death. Then they, with their culture, are lost The work of their hands, their science, their art, their philosophy, their theology, in short their culture, will ultimately profit, not themselves, but those who have obeyed the word of grace in Christ.

 

To be sure none of the cultural efforts of any man will be lost, for all things are Christ's and Christ is God's. But there are men who will lose their cultural efforts. They will lose the fruit of their labors because they have refused to labor unto Christ. They will reap the reward of Balaam who sought to curse Israel and, most of all, Israel's God. They will seek in vain to die the death of the righteous.


Footnotes

1. This outline is Van Til's briefest and clearest exposition of the nature and distinctiveness of the presuppositional defense of the faith. It has special significance as a crowning statement, appearing at the end of Van Til's "My Credo" in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971) 18-21. An earlier version of part A ("My problems with the `traditional method'") can be found in Defense of the Faith, 351-53, which was reproduced in The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 69-70. An earlier version of part B ("My understanding of the relationship between Christian and non-Christian, philosophically speaking") appeared in Defense of the Faith, 310-12, which was slightly expanded in Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 27-30. Part C ("My proposal, therefore, for a consistently Christian methodology of apologetics") appears to be original to "My Credo" and is a gem, communicating the gist of Van Til's apologetical method and argument. Back

2. Excerpts from Defense of the Faith, 165-66, 198, 306-7Back

3.CVT: Introduction to Theology syllabus, pp. 28-30. (This syllabus was mimeographed by Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1947.) Back

4. An excerpt from Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, 2-3. Back

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