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The ‘Readers Digest’ Van Til - For Seniors & their Mum's

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The ‘Readers Digest’ Van Til

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John Campbell – copyright

 

Editor. In the interest of clarity we have made some minor changes to this brilliant introduction to Van Til and his “Presuppositional Apologetics.”

 

Have you noticed how many books about the Christian Mind and Humanism have recently appeared? Most have something of real value to offer, but many consistent Reformed thinkers rely on Van Til when they need a consistent theological approach. He continually returns the lines of argument to God, making us feel that ‘of God, and through him, and to him, are all things.

To him be the glory forever. Amen’ (Rom. 11:36 ). 

 

There are difficulties in grasping Van Til. His style is not as simple as that of his former students Schaeffer and Carnell. His subject matter is often heavy, and shot through with obscure names, although anyone who perseveres soon discovers refreshing patches of clarity. Recent formulations of the classical, evidentialist approach have challenged his presuppositionalist method, and some have been too ready to ignore him. However, those who grapple with his writings (often without an experienced guide), find a growing conviction that here is something profoundly significant which enriches ones€™s vision of God. I was thrilled to find on a recent visit to Toronto Baptist Seminary in Canada that an encouraging number of pastors in that country treat his contribution with the highest regard.

 

Van Til has some helpful interpreters, though few are ‘purist” in their approach. Jim Halsey’s "For a Time Such as This," is the best. Rushdoony has published two critiques of Van Til, and both are helpful, although he has more recently diverted his own interests into the ‘Theonomy’ field. Thom Notaro has a serviceable work on Van Til and the use of evidence, while William White Jnr’s biography, Van Til: Defender of the Faith, has interesting background information, but does not provide a careful entry into Van Til’s central thought. John Frame’s Van Til: The Theologian is brilliant and challenging, but not entirely accurate. Douglas Vickers of Amherst University, Massachusetts, has a vital introductory booklet called Van Till and the Theologian is Theological Stance (pub.Cross). Professor Vicker’s friends have urged him to write more on the subject. Robert Reymond’s Justification of Knowledge presents a reasonable picture of the essential issues.

 

This article is undertaken with the aim of encouraging ordinary pastors to come to grips with Van. Til. lt will not consist of a systematic summary of his teaching, but of a simple presentation of some of his favourite illustrations. These word pictures are windows to his thought and show the profound clarity of his mind. They are attractive, though not all equally compelling. Some are unforgettable.

 

Van Til insists that our starting point is crucial. Many theologians and Christian philosophers begin with faith in man's ability to reason himself into a place where he can believe in God with integrity Van Till consistently exposes this assumed but specious ability of man, pleading after Keeper that we have ignored the noetic effects of sin. He asserts that we should not copy Descartes method of building bridges outwards from the autonomous self, but instead recognize our derivative nature, both in being and knowing. We are meant to be an analogue of God, a finite replica of him who made us in his image.

 

Van Til says that those who start with man are like someone who buttons up a jacket but soon hands that the first button is in the wrong hole, so that all the others are consequently misplaced. Similarly, apostate man’s reason is like a misaligned circular saw which wrongly cuts all the planks. This sinful reason will cut  its concept of reality according to fallen nature dictates. Would-be autonomous man is also like a pretentious builder who ignores and abandons the exact plans drawn by the Master Architect. He vainly tries to reassign the specific functions of objects for the house, with the result that the building will

never materialize unless the Architect steps in. The professor accuses secularists of putting the supernatural dimension on the mythical bed of Procrustus, and cutting off embarrassing or unwanted facets of reality that do not fit the autonomously determined measurements of sinful man.

 

In contrast, Van Til says that we must start with the self-attesting Christ of Scripture, not with the evidentialist arguments, for the cosmological argument presupposes God, not proves him. God is like the beams undergirding the floor. We cannot demonstrate their existence in the same way as e.g. furniture on the floorboards, but such beams are presupposed because without them the floor, would collapse. In fact we need an Archimedean Point which transcends created reality in order to have an authoritative and true perspective. Any point within creation leads to relativity and imbalance. Van Til distinguishes between proximate starting points and an ultimate starting point (see if you can find the diving board illustration in his works).

 

Furthermore, rebellious man is always confronted by God everywhere in life, even if he is not continuously aware of him. He is like a man who tries all buttons . on a transistor radio but always gets the same message he can never entirely turn off God’s voice! (Psalm 139 ). He is also like a child alone in a home who vehemently denies that he has parents, and insists that he owns the house and is the sole resident. However, the total witness of the house so plainly declares the opposite (e.g. adult clothes, family photos, documents), that argument seems unnecessary, yet the rebel will persist. Indeed, created reality is like linoleum that bears an indelible pattern which will only be defaced when the linoleum itself is destroyed. Man can suppress, but never eradicate God’s image, which is His greatest internal witness (Romans 1 ) in making man aware of his true status.

 

Sinful man lives on God s estates but pays no rent, and uses all his provisions but offers no thanks, despite all the well-placed ownership signs. Scientists unwittingly assume an orderly, theistic creation in their logical methods they live off the borrowed capital of Christian Theism. (Rushdoony, Schaeffer and Guinness, et. al., have clearly shown this aspect of science.) Non-Christians are cattle rustlers, living off the proceeds of Christian Theism, which alone is capable of providing a true (though not exhaustively detailed) explanation of the Cosmos. Facts are what they are by virtue of God’s providence, just as the number seventeen only makes sense within the framework of a numerical sequence.

 

Even man’s capacity to raise intellectual and moral rebellion against God is only possible because of the way God has created him. Man is like a child slapping its fathers face, but who can only do so because father holds him within reach! Nor can questing man establish God’s existence by evidentialist arguments, just as it is ridiculous for someone to prove the existence of the sun by using a flashlight! Such methods deny the true nature of man’s knowledge: that it is derivative, dependent on special revelation, partial, analogical, finite, sin-affected and re-interpretive,

 

In. the light of the God-awareness that persists in every person, Van Til warns that we should not accept an apologetic method that makes any concession to apostate man. Fallen man needs to be ‘blasted out of his last hiding place in his own best interests. He needs an honest Doctor who shows love by stating the true medical state of affairs and who offers a surgical remedy, not a pill-happy medico who says peace, peace where there is no peace. By God’s Spirit, man, unsure of his identity, needs to have his iron mask wrenched off to see himself before God. His colored glasses, cemented on, need to be replaced by the clear spectacles of Scripture.

 

Van Til's interpreter, R. J. Rushdoony, makes much of the concept that the emperor has no clothes'! He shows how a consistent apologetic will reveal the philosophical and epistemological nakedness of man, whereas a traditional apologetic will allow that ˜the emperor' is at least wearing some item of clothing.

 

In other areas of theology, Van Til also communicates good insights through _ word pictures. Consider one in which he emphasizes the incomprehensibility of God. (This doctrine does not mean that God can’t be truly known, but that he can’t be exhaustively known.) These ties in with an analogical view of language, and with the failure of thinkers to comprehend all facets even of general ' revelation (the cosmos). Time and effort will never achieve such knowledge, nor a fortiori will man ever attain to full knowledge of the supreme, unique, Triune God. We depend upon his self-revelation, and we can’t even I exhaustively comprehend the Bible.

 

Accordingly, Van Til employs the image of the full bucket, this bucket is full, yet more can be added! God is unchanging, yet prayer changes things! God is full of glory (which excludes addition) but must be glorified (which demands addition). In this way Van Til indicates how we can live with apparent paradox without having to systematize every datum of theology, history and science. God’s incomprehensibility and man’s derivative nature and knowledge demand it be so. Behind a compulsion to systematize everything lurks the elusive ideal of exhausting knowledge, whereas consistent Reformed thinkers adhere to principled knowledge. Christians do not possess all truth, but in the Bible have the Truth about all Truth.

 

In another theological topic, Cornelius Van Til beautifully illustrates how the problem of textual variations in manuscripts does not negate the concept of biblical infallibility. The loss of the autographs does not necessarily create uncertainty, just as temporary flood waters lapping over a bridge do not necessarily make the bridge unsafe. We see the side rails, and other cars crossing. We   realize that an inch of water only covers the surface; it does not invalidate it, nor   destroy it, nor erode it. It still carries the same traffic, providing we don’t go off the rails! 

 

This distinguished professor (turning 90 in 1985) employs many other attractive illustrations. Read the beginning of Christian Theistic Ethics and see how he so clearly uses. the concept of a Pilgrim as a picture of the study of ethics (e.g. Destination? Road? Attitude?).

 

I have been blessed over a long period of time with my consistent forays into Van Til, and I hope this small window into his books will encourage pastors to take down those dust-gathering volumes and discover how powerfully Van Til addresses the modern situation. Readers will also appreciate that a pastoral heart accompanies his massive mind.

 

We conclude with his healthy picture of a childlike trust in God. He has been showing how the Bible presents a unified cosmos:

 

"And if my unity is comprehensive enough to include the efforts of those who reject it, it is large enough even to include that which those who have been set upright by regeneration cannot see. My unity is that of a child who walks with its father through the woods. The child is not afraid because its father knows it all and is capable of handling every situation. So I readily grant that there are some difficulties with respect to belief in God and his revelation in nature and Scripture that I cannot solve. In fact there is mystery in every relationship with respect to every fact that faces me, for the reason that all facts have their final explanation in God whose thoughts are higher than my thoughts, and whose ways are higher than my ways. And it is exactly that sort of God that I need."

 

Exponents S. C. Hackett E. J. Carnell C. Van Til P. J. Sheen, B. Ramm, G. C. Berkouwer G Clark H. Dooyeweerd · J. O. Buswell J. M. Spier R J. Rushdoony

 

John  Campbell – Copyright 

Reformation Today  No 84 Mar-April 1985      

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 21 March 2014 11:01  

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