John M. Frame
[This article originally appeared in the Apologetics Study Bible and is used with permission.]
Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), Reformed theologian and apologist, born in the Netherlands, completed his Ph. D. at Princeton University in 1927. He taught apologetics for one year at Princeton Theological Seminary and was offered a permanent position there. He left the seminary, however, when the Board voted a reorganization to allow for liberal viewpoints.
Other professors also left Princeton at the time, notably J. Gresham Machen, author of Christianity and Liberalism, who founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia to continue the ministry of what would be called “old” Princeton. Van Til taught at Westminster from its beginning in 1929. He officially retired in 1972, but taught occasionally until 1979.
Van Til’s studies of philosophical Idealism convinced him that all human thought is governed by presuppositions. (Hence, Van Til is sometimes called a “presuppositionalist,” though he was not enthusiastic about that label.) Ultimate presuppositions, he believed, cannot be proved by usual methods, since they serve as the basis of all proof. But they can be proved “transcendentally,” by showing that they are necessary for all rational thought and must be true if there is to be any meaning or order in the world. Van Til sought to reconstruct Christian apologetics so that it would establish the Christian God as the presupposition of human thought, rather than one rational conclusion among many.
He disparaged the “traditional method” of defending Christianity by theistic proofs and historical evidences, because he believed that tradition began with data considered intelligible apart from God and thereby tried to prove God’s existence. On the contrary, Van Til argued, if we concede that anything is intelligible apart from the God of Scripture, we have lost the battle at the outset. So we should, rather, use a transcendental method, showing that the various forms of non-Christian thought (“would-be autonomous reasoning,” as he put it) reduce to meaninglessness, that they can account for precisely nothing, and that only the Christian world and life view (particularly the existence of God as a “self-contained ontological Trinity”) can make sense of anything. For Van Til, then, the creator-creature distinction is the key to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
Van Til’s writings contain many analyses of non-Christian philosophers and of liberal and Roman Catholic theologians. The recurring theme of these discussions is that these thinkers are either skeptics (“irrationalists”) or they try to explain the world (“rationalistically”) by a principle that is itself relative to the world it seeks to explain. Plato and Aristotle, for example, rationalistically propose to explain all reality by the principle of Form. Forms are the essences, defining qualities, and purposes of things. But in Plato and Aristotle, Forms are correlative to matter; without matter, nothing in the world of our experience has any Form. So the Forms cannot really account for matter or material things. The rationalism of these thinkers, then, is indistinguishable from irrationalism. Only a self-contained, personal God, who creates from nothing both the form and the matter of the universe, can account for the nature of the world and its accessibility to rational thought.
Some critics said that Van Til left no room for the use of evidence in apologetics. He replied that evidence is useful when used within a transcendental argument based on biblical presuppositions. But is this not circular, to prove Christianity on the basis of Christian presuppositions? Yes, said Van Til, in a sense. But (1) every system of thought is circular when arguing its most fundamental presuppositions (e.g. a rationalist can defend the authority of reason only by using reason). (2) The Christian circle is the only one that renders reality intelligible on its own terms.
Non-Christian thought, he argues, collapses into meaninglessness, because of the noetic effects of sin. The unbeliever knows God (Rom. 1:18-21) but suppresses the truth (1:18, 21-32). There is therefore an “antithesis” between Christian and unbelieving thought, between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. Although the unbeliever knows and states truth on occasion, he does that only by inconsistency with his presuppositions and by relying inconsistently on the Christian worldview, or, as Van Til put it, by “borrowed capital.” Thus he is both rationalistic (claiming to be the ultimate judge of truth) and irrationalistic (denying God, the sole source of meaning) at the same time. For Van Til, that duality, common to all non-Christians, explains many things in secular thought, such as the Greek distinction between rational form and irrational matter.
Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1998).
John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1995).
Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (Phillipsburg, NJ., 1975).
The Works of Cornelius Van Til, CD-ROM (Labels Army Corp., undated). Contains all of Van Til’s writings and many audio lectures. It also includes the most complete bibliography of Van Til’s work, A Guide to the Writings of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987, by Eric D. Bristley, also available separately.