The Essential Van Til – The Failure of Classical Apologetics

This post is a kind of follow-on from a previous post about “as-suchness.” In The New Synthesis Van Til writes:

Paul does not discuss questions of “fact” and views of “logic” as such. For Paul, there are no facts as such and there is no logic as such. Paul does not ask the Greeks to consider whether the facts might not be considered as probably or even possibly pointing toward the teleology of Scripture rather than to a teleology such as Plato and Aristotle offer. In effect, Paul asserts on the authority of Christ that no facts of the space-time world can exist and no logic can function except on the presupposition that whatever things the triune God of Scripture says are true.

Classical modes of defending the faith, in general, seek to prove the faith on the basis of some (as it is supposed) given standard of truth which is agreeable to both believer and unbeliever. Classical Apologists (hereafter, CA) say, “what does the unbeliever demand in order to believe? Whatever it is, I will give it to him.” So, some unbelievers demand “evidence” for the belief in God’s existence. They want “just facts” and no spin.

CA are happy to oblige. Now, before we are critical of the CA, we have to acknowledge the good in their thinking. They believe that Christianity should be able to be defended by logic, facts, evidence, or history because the Christian’s God is the God of logic, history, evidence, and history. Christianity is a historical faith. It is based on facts. So, what is wrong with making a logical, historical, or evidential argument for the faith?

Van Til is not opposed to logic, evidence or history. Nor is he opposed to using such in the service of defending the faith. What he opposes, however, is thinking that facts, logic, etc. are things which exist “out there,” brute facts that both believer and unbeliever can use together to evaluate truth claims about Christianity.

But, for Van Til, to do that is to surrender the debate to the unbeliever at the outset.

This mode of thinking makes facts, logic, etc. into abstractions. And Paul, says Van Til, does not argue from abstractions. The Bible knows nothing of “facts” which are independent of God and the meaning he gives them in his Word.

But for CA abstractions become something akin to Platonic ideals which rule all of reality—from God to rocks. Furthermore, abstractions presuppose that both believer and unbeliever interpret them the same way. But they don’t. The unbeliever presupposes the Lordship of logic, facts, etc. over even God himself. The Christian, however, presupposes that God is the Lord over all things.

And so the failure of the classical mode is at once apparent. CA adopt the presuppositions of the unbeliever—i.e., that logic, facts, etc. are interpreted the same way between believer and unbeliever. CA start with an unbelieving philosophy of fact, which allows the unbeliever to place God in the dock, imposing abstract notions of facts, logic, etc. upon God. But God is not the kind of person that can be placed in the dock. God is judge and jury. He is the arbiter. Therefore, we must begin with the triune God. Without the self-attesting Christ of Scripture there is no logic, fact, etc. The Christian must challenge the unbeliever’s philosophy of fact, not grant it to him. And it is precisely here—at this compromise—that CA find their failure.

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Jake Swink

10 months ago

I have not read Van Til, but have listened for a while. Would it not stand to reason that because logic is subservient to God, that it would point back to Him? How does the non-believer not also then reach this conclusion?`

Hong Woo

10 months ago

In response to your question, you are right to say that logic is subservient to God. However, the unbeliever’s epistemological system, where his/her logic comes from, is not the same as the believer’s epistemological system. In fact, as Van Til would say, these two systems are wholly antithetical epistemologically. Though both the unbeliever and believer can both know that 2+2=4 in a logical basis, this does not mean that both parties are working on the same epistemological system of logic. It is by common grace that the unbeliever can use logic to be able to do arithmetic (or any scientific endeavor for that matter). For the believer, 2+2=4 is not based on some abstract principle of logic but we have a personal concrete universal as Van Til would say, showing that every fact in this world is a personal fact interpreted by a tri-personal God. However, though the unbeliever and believer may have antithetical epistemological systems, they have their “point of contact” is in the fact that they are both creation, which is the Christian metaphysic. Both unbeliever and believer live in God’s world, living by God’s rules as God gives them, whether one “admits” that God exists or not. The entire universe is narrated by the omniscient, transcendent God, which is the true metaphysic. It is because that the unbeliever and believer share the God-ordained metaphysic of creation, bearing the image of God, that they can have any point of contact in an apologetic discussion, even if these two parties are epistemelogically antithetical to one another. This is what Dr. Cassidy is referring to here by saying that we must “begin with the triune God,” unlike Classical Apologists who assume that the believer and unbeliever share not only a metaphysical common ground (which they do) but also an epistemological one (which they do not).


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