Some recent thoughts on Van Tillian Presuppositionalism

I had some interesting thoughts last night as I was driving in my car, and have attempted to reproduce them in the two short thoughts that I have posted below. As I am preparing to teach a course on Natural Theology, I am considering a number of different views about natural theology. One predominant view in Christian circles is some form of presuppositionalism. They are not in any type of final format, I'm just throwing them out there for discussion.

One point to keep in mind. Van Tillian presuppositionalism relies on the notion that you either hold to a world view, interpretative system, or you do not. It is a well-known fact that Van Til severely criticized anybody who held a different opinion from his. People that fell under Van Til's sword include Karl Barth (who also claimed to hold to the only true version of Christianity and criticized anybody who disagreed with him), Charles Hodge, C. S. Lewis (that horrible arminian! cf. Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 39), Herman Bavinck, Edward C. Carnell and Gordon Clark. This is while I refer to Van Tillian reformed theology, and not just reformed theology. Hodge's and Barth's different versions aren't true, they accept the viewpoint of fallen man.

Thought # 1:
If presuppositionalism is true, then which version of Christianity must we presuppose? The assumption is that in order to understand anything one must presuppose the truth of biblical Trinitarian Christianity. For Van Til, reformed theology is the true model for biblical Trinitarian Christianity. He laments the prostitution of truth at the hands of other reformed theologians who allow for some point of contact between those who don’t presuppose Van Tillian reformed theology and those who do. The difficulty is as follows: If Van Tillian presuppositionalism is true, then anyone who deviates from Van Tillian doctrine is either: (1) deviating from the truth, or (2) unsaved, and therefore, not holding the appropriate interpretative scheme. What does this imply for “non-reformed Christians”? or for “reformed non-Van Tillian Christians”?

Thought # 2:
One of the main points of Van Tillian Presuppostionalism is that unless you presuppose Van Tillian Reformed theology you cannot truly understand or know anything.[1] This general claim is augmented by the following claims: “The proper way to begin with facts is therefore to claim that unless they are what Christianity says they are they are unintelligible.”[2]  “Applying this to the question of man’s knowledge of facts, it may be said that for the human mind to know any fact truly, it must presuppose the existence of God and his plan for the universe.”[3] “Our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.”[4] “the only conclusive argument for Christianity is precisely the fact that only upon the presupposition of the truth of its teaching does logic or predication in general touch reality at all.”[5] Unless you presuppose the truth of Van Tillian reformed theology you might be able to obtain some truths but you will never understand the meaning of those truths, or understand them truly; you will not even be able to speak (predicate) properly of reality, or properly apply logic to reality. These are extreme claims. Consider for a moment the following situation. An atheist friend and I are discussing the existence of God with a Van Tillian. The Van Tillian commits a logical error. The atheist friend notices the error and corrects him on that error. I happen to notice that the atheist is right and side with our atheist friend in pointing out the atheist error. According to Van Til such a situation is not possible, for unless we presuppose the Van Tillian interpretative scheme, “logic or predication in general” do not “touch reality at all.” In the above situation what has just happened? One of the following circumstances would seem to be necessarily true: (1) the atheist and I are both closet Van-Tillians, (2) the atheist and I are both Van-Tillians without knowing it, (3) the atheist and I were both wrong (which in the above circumstance would be an impossible state of affairs), or (4) Van Tillian presuppositionalism is wrong in claiming that unless we presuppose Van Tillian reformed theology our predications and logic will not touch reality at all. Perhaps we can view this dilemma in a different way.

In one of the quotes given above Van Til claims that the human mind cannot know any fact truly unless it presupposes reformed Trinitarian theology. What could Van Til possibly mean by “know any fact truly”? That one grasps the fact or understands it? That one understands it’s relation to the whole of all truths? That one understands the consequences that follow from it? That one understands the meaning of that truth for yourself – what it means to you? Taking Van Til literally, it seems that the one of the following consequences follows necessarily, if one must presuppose the truth of Van Tillian reformed Trinitarian theology in order to know any fact truly, then no non-Van Tillian can truly know any fact. This, however, seems to be contradicted by reality. The unsaved children (0-10 years old) of Van Tillian theologians truly know who their parents are. If any non-Van Tillian (some other branch of Christian though, atheist, or a believer in some other religion) truly knows any particular fact (mathematical equations, the distance of the sun to the earth, the theory of gravity, the size and rotation of the earth, etc.), then either (1) the non-Van Tillian (atheist or otherwise) is in fact (without knowing it) a Van Tillian, or (2) the claim of Van Tillian presuppositionalism, that in order to truly know any fact one must presuppose Van Tillian reformed theology, is false. What happens if this claim is false?

[1]Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the faith (1974; Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1982), 12, 13, 17, 18.

[2]Ibid., 18.

[3]Ibid., 22.

[4]Ibid., 23.

[5]Ibid., 39.

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