Van Til’s Contradiction
The rejecting and accepting of
Enlightenment Rationalism in the presuppositional thought of Van Til
In the thought of Cornelius Van Til, reason is undermined but ultimately upheld in its Enlightenment place of final standard. Van Til attacks reason, denying “brute facts” and arguing there are no common epistemology and no familiar access to the evidence. He tears down reason’s main temple: the temple of the scientific method of knowledge, that gave all the objective ability to know. He opposes the Enlightenment elevation of reason to the final standard, the place of God. And then he doesn’t. While Van Til denies the propositions of the Rationalists, he also buys them. He is, at the last call, a Rationalist who believes that reason is the final standard of truth.
Van Til begins by opposing the very project of reason. All of the tradition of Western Philosophy and Theology has either assumed this primacy of reason or worked to defend and bolster the idea of objectivity, and Van Til has come swinging heavy blows against it. Van Til writes in his rejection of reason:
“If he (man) is then said to possess the truth he possesses it as the product of the ultimately legislative powers of his intellect. It is only if he can virtually control by means of the application of the law of non-contradiction all the facts of reality that surround him, that he can know any truth at all. And thus, if he knows any truth in this way, he, in effect, knows all truth,”
He objects to the mere possibility of such reasoning, opposing the concept of evidence that is “uncolored by elements from without.” Van Til writes against the traditional aims of certainty, condemning the “false ideal of knowledge, the ideal of absolute inderivative comprehension,” something he attributes to the rejection of the finitude that comes with createdness. Logic is so theory-laden,* he says repeatedly, that a Christian and a non-Christian can’t even think the same way. According to Van Til, “there simply are no ‘pure’ observational statements,” and one cannot have a way of knowing that is not theory-laden. To say otherwise, he believes, would be to deny the Christian faith.
“If I were to attempt to know what ‘objective reality’ was, apart from the all-embracive message of God as Christ speaking in Scripture, I would deny, it seems to me, all that it means to be a ‘Christian’!”
Van Til is anti-objectivist, anti-evidentialist, and his work is undermining the claim of reason to be the final authority.
Van Til talks extensively about the failure of using reason and the role of God as the final standard for truth but, digging deeper, we find that God is judged by reason. Van Til thinks that reason is on God’s side, but the final and ultimate standards are those of reason. God and his doctrines are housed under the “roof” of reason. Van Til repeatedly turns to two tests to verify truth: intelligibility and coherence. For Van Til, a theory fails if it does not meet these twin standards of reason. He opposed evidentialists because “when all was said and done (they) used rational coherence as the test of various worldviews as hypotheses, including the worldview of divine revelation. God is still ‘in the dock,’” but he uses exactly this standard. Van Til argues for Christianity on the grounds of intelligibility, saying that it is the only reference point that makes “facts” intelligible. He writes that the Christian claim is to being that “without which a true scientific procedure is unintelligible.” Van Til repeatedly says Christianity is true because it is the only means to rationally secure intelligibility, the hope of escaping chaos and absurdity. “I believe in God now because unless I have him as the All-Conditioner, life is Chaos,” he writes reducing the Almighty and Triune God of Christianity to a support for reason. Calling God the “Great Orderer,” he sees that reason is not self-sufficient but he still sees it as the end. He isn’t opposed to the primacy of reason but to the unstable self-foundation of reason.
Bahnsen, responding to critics, makes clear that Van Til was not opposed to evidence (as might be supposed by his attacks on evidentialists) and the rationalistic position of the use of that evidence, but thought Christianity necessary for the “evidence” to be of any use. Van Til wants a better way to defend the same thing that has always been defended. He is not rejecting the tradition, and despite his claims his work is the same in character as that of many of the men he is attacking. For Van Til, Apologetics and Theology are, finally, just the best way of getting the Enlightenment’s rationalism. As Bahnsen explains, “Christianity is the rational precondition of intelligibility.” Christianity then, is the means and the hope at the end of the project is reason.
The final condemnation of a theory, for Van Til, is that it is not housed under the protection of reason. He says that he is a Christian because of reason—“Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold” —and in the end looks to reason as the final authority. He clearly says his method is to force the opponent to stand against reason. Van Til says, “what we will have to do then is to try to reduce our opponent’s position to absurdity, ” showing that the condemnation of a theory isn’t its rejection of God, but of reason. Van Til calls Christianity the “position which alone does not annihilate intelligent human experience,” and again we have cogito ergo sum. “The Reformed Christian apologist assumes that nothing can be known by man about himself or the universe unless God exists and Christianity it true.” Yet, the knowing is the same. Christianity is but the precondition. Van Til wants Christianity because he is the heir of Descartes, the son of the Enlightenment, a card-carrying Rationalist. He wants reason, and will take God and divine revelation if, and only if, they give him the ground for reason. Here, he is in exactly the same point as those rejecting God and religion as “the superstition that shackles men’s minds.” He is a Christian for the identical reason other men are materialists.
Demonstrating this method of using the standard of religion on God and faith, Van Til says Catholicism is unacceptable because it holds to some forms of irrationalism, believing that some things are beyond reason and, because he finds Protestantism more “consistent.” He appeals to reason as the standard for Christianity.
Van Til’s rationalism shows up in his fear of the words “irrationalism”+ and “fideism,” words used by his critics to point to the thrust of presuppositionalism that tears ground out from under the Enlightenment’s final standard. The charge of “irrational fideism” is one Van Til categorically denies. As Bahnsen says, “Presuppostionalism contends that the biblical worldview must be assumed, not only in arguing for the truth of the Bible, but in order for any reasoning or argumentation to be intelligible.” Yet again, we see the end being intelligibility, the project reason.
The standard of reason, as any historic study of the Rationalists will show, is the standards of self. Only one’s self can fully execute the method of judgment by reason. When Rene Descartes proclaimed, “cogito ergo sum
” he declared himself the final arbitrator of truth, the final standard of knowledge. Descartes declaration was no accident, given his project of finding absolute certainty in reason. If one is to have and need this, one has already made oneself the final arbitrator. Rationalism is, naturally, individualistic. Looking for signs of Van Til’s dependence and appeals to reason, we should be able to see them by turning to individualism.
Van Til works hard to attempt to go beyond the individualistic standard of reason. Accusing the Roman Catholics as holding a view of man’s reason that has man standing autonomous, in God’s place, and subverting Christianity, Van Til says: “if man is in any sense autonomous he is not in need of revelation.” Van Til extensively attacks the concept of man’s “autonomy,” but even his own work attests he saw himself as autonomous. He sees theology as individualistic, as an enterprise to be carried out privately. In Bahnsen’s book, the comprehensive study of Van Til’s life work of apologetics, there is not a single mention of any role for the Church in theology, epistemology, or apologetics. Karl Bath, a man regularly reviled by Van Til, scrapped his Christian Dogmatics
to write his Church Dogmatics,
because he came to believe that theology happened within the Church. Van Til doesn’t have any move of this sort, and leaves us no picture of corporate theology, indeed his view seems totally individualistic and thus emphasizing the autonomy of man. Van Til never expresses anything showing that theology is something beyond the individualistic enterprise he treated it as. The Church plays no role # and the theologian, echoing Descartes’ creed of self-standard, acts as a free individual.
When Van Til speaks of scripture—the foundation of knowledge, he says—he describes it as attesting to individuals. Thus, the individual’s affirmation of an individual “attesting” of the text is the verification of veracity. Never mind that the text was originally verified and approved by the church, or that the text itself identifies the church as the foundation. Paul claims that “the church of living God” is the “pillar and ground of truth” while he marks the sacred text as “profitable.” Van Til says that “if a man is in any sense autonomous he is not in need of revelation,” but, applying that to Van Til himself, what about the man who is autonomous in his acceptance of revelation? Van Til, countering the Apostle and the historic church, accepts scripture and Christianity as an individual, and proceeds as an individual. While he condemns those who “ascribe ultimacy…to the mind of man,” Van Til, by his actions shows us his is as individualistic as Descartes. Thus, his individualism shows us that Van Til, on this account also, is an Enlightenment rationalist.
One wonders what this new formulation of Van Til’s does to Christianity. This revolution has us converting to an epistemology and not a faith; accepting a precondition for what we already believe and not redemption. It would seem Van Til’s Christ died to assure us a precondition for our natural reason. Apparently the great need of man, the hole caused by the fall of Adam, was the need for well shored-up epistemological grounds. This is a rupture from any historical or scriptural definition of Christianity.
While it’s not something necessarily fundamentally wrong with presuppositionalism, this contradiction is a flaw in Van Til’s thought. He refused to move past rationalism and he refused to accept the old foundations of reason, catching himself in the contradiction of accepting and rejection the tradition’s Enlightenment standard of Reason.
*In this he sounds striking like Jacques Derrida and other postmodernists and French poststructuralists. This is a comparison that would frighten Van Til.
+Often, charges of irrationalism are incorrect in that they assume everything beyond reason is non-thinking. As William Bartlett says in Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, “Irrationalism holds that feeling, or will, or instinct are more valuable and indeed more truthful than reason…(b)ut irrationalism surrenders the field of thinking to rationalism and thereby comes to share the assumptions of its enemy. What is needed is a more fundamental kind of thinking.” (Pg. 206. New York, Doubleday Anchor, 1958.) Heidegger, for instance, accepts the criticism that he has rejected rationalism and looks to move towards thinking, saying that if reason hinders us then “so much the worse for reason.” This is a move that Van Til never even looked at.
#Prayer too, is never mentioned. One is even less inclined to imagine Van Til giving any credence or value in the idea of the Eucharist holding a central place in theology.