Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis

by Greg L. Bahnsen (Reviewed by W. Gary Crampton)

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*Dr. Crampton is a free-lance writer living in Montpelier, Virginia.

Shortly before his death, Greg L. Bahnsen (1948-1995) completed a major work, one in which he attempted to promote an understanding of the apologetic of his mentor, Cornelius Van Til: Van Tilís Apologetic: Readings and Analysis.(1) Dr. Bahnsen, in the words of the Cornelius Van Til Committee that spearheaded this project, was eminently, even uniquely qualifiedÖfor the task (xv). He earned a B.A. (magna cum laude, Philosophy) from Westmont College. He received his M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary, a school where Van Til taught for over forty years. He then went on to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, specializing in the field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge). Dr. Bahnsen taught for a period of time at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and then, as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, served as pastor of a congregation in California. Later he served as Scholar-in-Residence at the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, in Irvine, California.

Greg Bahnsen was a distinguished scholar, author, and debater, who wrote and lectured extensively on the subjects of Biblical law (2) and apologetics. He earnestly sought to defend Christianity against the worldly systems so prevalent in our day. This reviewer has profited from Dr. Bahnsenís theological labors through reading many of his books and listening to numbers of his taped lectures. Then, too, Greg Bahnsen was a friend, although we differed over certain matters of doctrine and apologetic technique. I distinctly remember that in one of our discussions he said to me, Ah, I am just too much of a Van Tilian for you, to which I merely nodded my head, as if to say, Yes, Greg, you are.

As the subtitle of this book suggests, Dr. Bahnsen has gathered some of the primary passages on apologetics from the works of Cornelius Van Til (something of an anthology), arranged them topically, and added an analysis. In the authorís own words: My aim is to expound the presuppositional method of defending the Christian faith by highlighting and explaining the distinctives of Van Tilís thought, providing carefully chosen selections from his body of writings, and taking opportunity to correct certain criticisms that have been voiced. This book, then, is something of an anthology with running commentary (xxi). It should also be mentioned that Dr. Bahnsenís respect for and devotion to his beloved professor is apparent throughout the book. In his own words: Cornelius Van Til was a profound and intelligent philosopher who sought above all to be faithful as a minister of Godís authoritative Word. His heart was devoted to the self-attesting Savior, whose saving love was presented in that Word, and he was dedicated to reaching out to a lost world in the most winsome and effective manner of declaring and defending the gospel he cherished. What he taught us about defending the faith has immense value that should not be missed in our generation or lost to future ones (698).

On the one hand, there is much to applaud in this book, a volume that one reviewer calls a work of incalculable value.(3 )   For example, Van Tilís belief that Apologetics Defends Christianity Taken as a Whole (34); the fact that Apologetics Should be Pursued in a Learned Fashion (39); the teaching that Apologetics and Theology are Interdependent (55); and that (as opposed to Roman Catholic dogma) Theology and Philosophy Cannot be Sharply Separated (56); his commitment to the Augustinian dictum that Reason and Faith are Both United in Covenantal Submission to Scripture (64); his (alleged) adherence to the Reformed testimony (as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith) that Scripture Carries Its Own Evidence in Itself (209); his affirmation of The Impossibility of Neutrality (702) between Christianity and other worldviews; and his Comparisons and Criticisms of Apologetic Methods (530).

On the other hand, there are the all too frequent Van Tilianisms. Dr. Bahnsen, like other followers of Cornelius Van Til, adopted some of his mentorís erroneous beliefs, errors that have been pointed out time and again by The Trinity Foundation and others (4 ). As we will see, Dr. Van Tilís method of apologetics is not, as touted on the cover of this volume, an uncompromisingly Biblical method of defending Christianity. Indeed, it is far from it.

First, Cornelius Van Til, who is often thought of as a staunch presuppositionalist (461), is not a presuppositionalist. Why? Because he believes that there are proofs for the existence of God. As cited by Dr. Bahnsen, Dr. Van Til writes: I do not reject ëthe theistic proofsí but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the doctrines of ScriptureÖ. There is a natural theology that is legitimate (613); and When the proofs are thus formulated [i.e., on a Christian basis] they have absolute probative force (615). This is true, we are told, of the ontological proof, the cosmological proof, and the teleological proof (621). Dr. Bahnsen, in summarizing his teacherís position, states: Van Til did not sweepingly and indiscriminately discard theistic proofs. He affirmed quite boldly that the argument for the existence of God, when properly construed, is indeed objectively valid (622).

Both Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til attempt to distinguish between their use of the theistic proofs and the RomanistóArminian usage (612-634), the latter of which is called the traditional method (614). When one formulates the use of the proofs on a Christian basis, so it is alleged, this is the presuppositional method; that is, these proofs are presuppositional theistic proofs (616), an oxymoron if there ever was one. Whereas the traditional method proposes to show only that the truth of Christianity is ëhighly probable,í the presuppositional method intends to show that Christianity is infallible and certain (545). It is significant that John Frame, an ardent Van Tilian, sees through this supposition. He disagrees with Dr. Van Til (and Dr. Bahnsen) that there is such a thing as an absolutely certain proof for Christianity. He writes: What now becomes of Van Tilís claim that there is an ëabsolutely certain argumentí for Christian theism? He seems to think that transcendental arguments, which are negative arguments, are absolutely certain. But I have, I think, cast some doubt upon the clarity of these concepts and the legitimacy of Van Tilís attempt to limit the apologetics to these types of arguments. Mr. Frame goes on to show that all such theistic proofs, including Dr. Van Tilís, are nothing more than probability arguments. Then, in a most telling statement, he correctly concludes: there is less distance between Van Tilís apologetics and the traditional apologetics than most partisans on either side (including Van Til himself) have been willing to grant. (5 )

Dr. Van Tilís supposed absolute proof of Christian theism is frequently referred to as the transcendental argument, that is, arguing from the impossibility of the contrary (4-7, 120). Dr. Van Til makes this bold statement: The theistic proofs therefore reduce to one proof, the proof which argues that unless this God, the God of the Bible, the ultimate being, the Creator, the controller of the universe, be presupposed as the foundation of human experience, this experience operates in a void. This one proof is absolutely convincing.(6 ) Understandably, then, Dr. Bahnsen is openly critical of Gordon Clark, who denies the validity of the theistic proofs altogether (671). Dr. Clark, he writes, is a dogmatist, who believes that the Bible is to be our indemonstrable, axiomatic starting point. Dr. Van Til, writes Dr. Bahnsen with approbation, recoiled at this notion (671). However, is it not obvious that, by definition, a presupposition is not provable? And if one is a presuppositionalist, he cannot logically believe in the legitimate use of theistic proofs for the existence of God. Paradoxically (a favorite concept within Van Tilian circles), Dr. Bahnsen, in Always Ready (his own book on apologetics)(7 ), applauds the dogmatic approach and calls upon Christian apologetes to have Scripture as their axiom. Bahnsen writes: His [Godís] Word must be the standard by which we judge all things and the starting point [i.e., the axiom] of our thinking (25). It is not surprising that the Biblical and Reformed principle of presupposing the Word and authority of Christ in the world of thought and making it foundational to all knowledge would strike us as ëdogmaticí or ëabsolutisticíÖ. It appears dogmatic and absolutistic because it is dogmatic and absolutistic (31).

Amazingly, Dr. Bahnsen also criticizes Dr. Clark because, even though Clark did endorse rational discussion with the unbeliever and criticism of the unbelieverís theory of knowledge, ethical stand, etc.,...[Dr. Clark averred that] the only ëreasoní (cause) for an unbeliever choosing the Bible over the Koran is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (466n).

Query: From a Reformed and Biblical standpoint, what other reason or cause could there be? In 1 Corinthians 12:3 we read that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. Faith, we are told, is a gift of God. And as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (14:1): The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts. This is simply an uncareful statement on the part of Dr. Bahnsen. He knew better. He even quotes Dr. Van Til several pages later as stating that the ethical miracle of regeneration must occur before argumentation can be really effectual (475).

Notwithstanding, Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til want us to believe that there is a Christian basis upon which to base the theistic proofs rendering them objectively valid, having absolute probative force. But the most overt difficulty is that if one formulates his arguments for Godís existence on the basis of Christian theism, then there is no theistic proof at all, and no point in constructing proofs. It is simply divine revelation, not an argument for God or His Word. One has already assumed Godís existence. To proceed to prove it is not only superfluous, but also an obvious case of begging the question.

This being the case, to suggest that the theistic proofs can be formulated in a Biblical fashion is confused. The whole point of the proofs is to argue from non-Biblical premises to the God of the Bible. The absolutely certain proof of the transcendental argument is imaginary. The Van Tilian position is a confused form of evidentialism; it is certainly not presuppositionalism. Dr. Van Tilís student John Frame wrote: The term presuppositionalÖis not an adequate description of Van Tilís position.(8 )

This is not to say that a form of the transcendental argument cannot be used in an ad hominem fashion, that is, a reductio ad absurdum. Reducing an opponentís arguments to the level of absurdity, thereby showing him the vacuous nature of his own worldview, is an excellent apologetical tool. All of Gordon Clarkís books are examples of such argumentation. But such an argument does not prove Christian theism to be true(9 ). As a matter of fact, if all other known worldviews could be shown to be false (Dr. Bahnsen here sets himself an impossible task, for he did not and could not examine all other known, let alone possible, worldviews), this would still not prove Christianity to be true. Furthermore, to argue from the impossibility of the contrary cannot prove Christianity true: One must argue from the impossibility of the contradictory, because contraries may both be false. But worst of all for the Van Tilian enterprise, one can know that all other worldviews are false only on the basis of Scripture: The wisdom of this world is foolishness. Paulís conclusion is not the result of the impossible induction that Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til set before us as an allegedly absolute proof. Paulís conclusion is information revealed by God. Unless one starts with Scripture, that is, with Christianity, one cannot get to God or demonstrate the foolishness of human wisdom either.

Second, Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til undermine the Biblical and Reformed principle of sola Scriptura when they adopt the all too prevalent two-source theory of truth. This view maintains that some sourceóscience, history, philosophy, reasonófurnishes men truth, in addition to the Word of God (10). For instance, Dr. Bahnsen criticizes Gordon Clark for his anti-empirical attitudes in epistemology and his non-cognitivist approach to the work of science. Dr. Clarkís view clashes with Van Tilís affirmation of the knowledge-gaining character of empirical science (671). According to Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til, a study of science does indeed give us facts; empirical knowledge is affirmed (259-260, 614). Dr. Bahnsen decries Dr.

Clarkís belief that genuine knowledge [is] available only in the Bible (671, 242). What makes this so strange (another paradox!) is that in Always Ready, Dr. Bahnsen (implicitly) endorses the Clarkian view when he writes: The very possibility of knowledge outside of Godís [special] revelation (savingly presented in Christ) must be undermined (105). Worse, if science gives us truth, where does that leave the transcendental argument that is supposed to show that only Christianity is true?

Where, we ask, do we find facts or truth in our scientific study of the universe? How do we determine that they are true? How is it possible that the ever-changing discipline of science can give us truth? Certainly this belief in science as a truth-discovering method contradicts the numerous statements in Scripture that the wisdom of this world is foolishness (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 1-2). According to Christ, the Bible has a systematic monopoly on truth: Your Word is truth (John 17:17). Proverbs 22:17-21 tell us that God has given us the Scriptures (the words of the wise) so that we may know the certainty of the words of truth. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 maintain that Scripture thoroughly equips us for every [note the universal every] good work. And surely the two-source theory of truth contradicts the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:6), that the whole counsel of God concerning all things [note the universal all things] necessary for His glory, manís salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing [including science] is at any time [including the twentieth century] to be added. (11 )

Third, there is the Van Tilian notion of analogy; that is, that all human knowledge is, and can only be, analogical to Godís knowledge (250-251). There is no point at which Godís knowledge meets manís knowledge (248, 255). Dr. Van Til is not just teaching that there is a difference in the quantity of Godís knowledge and manís knowledge (a belief with which all Christians should agree), but that there is also a difference in the content of knowledge (248). Astonishingly, Dr. Van Til writes: Man could not have the same thought content in his mind that God has in His mind unless he were himself divine (227). Elsewhere he states that manís knowledge of God and His Word is at no point identical with the content of Godís mind.(12) And it is because of the fact that all human knowledge is only analogical to Godís knowledge that all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory. (13 )

Such a view, if carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to complete skepticism (14 ). An analogy of the truth is simply not the truth. If God is omniscient, and knows all truth, if there is no univocal point at which manís thoughts meet Godís thoughts, then man could never know any truth. The Bible itself, written by human beings in human words, could not be the Word of God. Furthermore, Dr. Van Tilís view is in direct violation of the Reformed doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. As taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:7): All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. Peter tells us that even though there are some things in Scripture which are hard [not impossible] to understand, nevertheless, it is those who are untaught and unstable [who] twist [the Scriptures] to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).

Dr. Van Til was fond of saying that man is to think Godís thoughts after Him (220). And according to Dr. Van Til, this

can only be accomplished in analogical thinking. In univocal thinking, says he, we do not think Godís thoughts after Him (255). The irony is that without univocal thinking, man can never think Godís thoughts, but only analogies of Godís thoughts. But Jesus said, You shall know the truth (John 8:32)ónot an analogy of the truth, nor something similar to the truth, nor a pointer to truth, but the truth itself.

This faulty view of revelation and knowledge, and the Van Tilian conclusion that the Scriptures contain numerous logical paradoxes (humanly irresolvable contradictions), stem from Dr. Van Tilís erroneous notions regarding logic. His deprecation of logic, not just the misuse of logic, but logic itself, is well known (15 ). Hence, Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til are both highly critical of Gordon Clarkís teaching on God and logic (669-670). Astonishingly, Dr. Van Til writes: Extreme Calvinists think they can show that the teachings of the Bible can be related to one another in a logically penetrable system (659). Apparently, then, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:5) is in error when it speaks of the consent [logical consistency] of all the parts of Scripture. This being so, it would be, not only impossible, but also sinful to attempt to harmonize and systematize the teachings of the Bible. Dr. Van Til and others branded Gordon Clark a rationalist because he attempted such a harmony and systematization (16 ).

The fact of the matter is that logic is an attribute of God Himself. He is the God of Truth (Psalm 31:5). Christ is the Truth (wisdom, logic, and reason) incarnate (John 1:1; 14:6; 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30; Colossians 2:3). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13). God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33); His Word to us is not yes and no (2 Corinthians 1:18). Thus He does not speak to us in illogical, paradoxical statements. Because logic is the way God thinks, the laws of logic are eternal principles. And because man is the image of God, these laws are part of man. There is, then, a point of contact between Godís logic and manís logic, between Godís knowledge and manís knowledge. Both God and man think 1 + 1= 2; both agree that A is A.

Contrary to the platitudinous nonsense of the irrationalists, Scripture teaches that there is no such thing as mere human logic. For example, in John 1:9, we read that Christ, as the Logos of God (John 1:1; the Greek logos is the word from which logic is derived), is the true Light which gives light to every man. This being the case, it is evident that Godís logic and manís logic are the same logic.

Again paradox surfaces in Dr. Bahnsenís view of logic. In the book under review, he openly endorses his professorís criticism of Dr. Clarkís use of logic. But in Always Ready, he seems to take the opposite stand. Says Dr. Bahnsen: The laws of logic are so important to argumentation and reasoningñ precisely what apologetics is all aboutÖ. An effective defense of the faith will call for skillful use of logic in meeting the challenges of unbelievers and refuting their arguments, as well as in doing an internal critique of the unbelieverís own basic outlook (144) Clearly, Dr. Bahnsen was a fine enough scholar to understand the indispensability of logic when it comes to the Christian faith and the defense of it. Apparently, he wanted to defend his professor on this matter, while at the same time, he knew better.

Finally, there is the matter of epistemology. In his doctoral studies, Greg Bahnsen specialized in this field. Too, it was a major issue with Cornelius Van Til. In the book under review, there are two entire (and lengthy) chapters devoted to epistemology, and the balance of the book is replete with references to the subject. It is obviously an important matter in Dr. Van Tilís apologetic method, and rightly so.

The difficulty comes at this point: What is the rightful place of epistemology in a genuine Christian philosophy? Is it foundational, or is it to be considered alongside of the other three branches of philosophy: metaphysics, ethics, and politics? The question here is not, Are these all interrelated? They all are. The question is, Which logically comes first? Which is our foundation?

Dr. Bahnsen is critical of Gordon Clarkís view that epistemology is the starting point, and the other branches of philosophy must be built upon it. It is with disapproval that he cites Dr. Clarkís statement: Metaphysics can be established only on an epistemological basis (669). Drs. Bahnsen and Van Til hold metaphysics and ethics to be equally foundational. According to Dr. Bahnsen, a personís theory of knowledge (epistemology) is but part (or an aspect) of a whole network of presuppositions that he maintains, which includes beliefs about the nature of reality (metaphysics) and his norms for living (ethics) (263). This may be true, but it is irrelevant. The issue is not a personís psychology, but the logical order of disciplines.

The reader may ask at this point, So what? Does it really matter? As taught by John Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, and Gordon Clark, yes it does matter. Why? Simply because our starting point is foundational, and, therefore, crucial. If one insists on starting with metaphysics, we must ask, How do you know that yours is a true theory of reality? Or if one desires to start with ethics, the question is How do you know right from wrong, and what should be done in this or that situation? What is the standard? Without a standard, a ground basis for belief (epistemology), one can never know what reality is, or what is right and wrong. The first problem is always the epistemological problem. This is no small matter, no mere pedantic exercise in theological and/or philosophical hairsplitting. It is a matter of great significance. This is why John Calvin, in his Institutes, begins with epistemology. He does not begin with metaphysics by discussing the nature of reality, and then prove the existence of God. Neither does he begin with a study of the law of God (ethics). His starting point is epistemologyóthe knowledge of God and of ourselves.

The same is true of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter one of the Confession is Of the Holy Scripture. Only after the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments have been established as the starting point of Christian theology does the Confession go on to consider the doctrine of God (metaphysics) in chapters 2-5, and the doctrine of the law (ethics) in chapter 19. In a truly Biblical philosophy, the branches of metaphysics and ethics must necessarily follow epistemology. Even soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, is a branch of epistemology. It is not a branch of metaphysics, for man is not deified when he is saved. Neither is it a branch of ethics, for man is not saved by doing good. Salvation is by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-10). And faith is belief of the truth, as revealed by God in Scripture. Epistemology is foundational, and it is a serious error not to give it its rightful place.

As stated above, much of the volume under review is helpful. There is much that can be learned from reading Dr. Bahnsenís analysis of his mentorís thought. Nevertheless, there are errors, some very serious, all of which stem from Dr. Van Tilís confusion and irrationalism. Some of these errors have been addressed in this review. Indeed, Dr. Van Til was not, as the Cornelius Van Til Committee would have us believe, a remarkable gift to the churchÖwhose thought continues to have unprecedented value for strengthening the church in its commitment to the whole counsel of God (xvi).

We Christians, at the very beginning of the twenty-first century, are very much in need of a rational theology. What is being urged here is not a Spinozist rationalism, one which is free from divine revelation, presupposing the autonomy of human reason. What is being called for is Christian rationality, which recognizes Christ as the logic of God, the wisdom and reason of God incarnate. And standing on the axiomatic starting point of His Word, which is logically consistent (in the words of the Confession, there is a consent to all the parts), we must embrace the Scriptural ideals of clarity in both thought and speech. Then, and only then, will we be able to cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, [and] bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).



(1) Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Tilís Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998).

(2) For a critique of Dr. Bahnsenís theonomic position, see John W. Robbins, Theonomic Schizophrenia (The Trinity Review, February 1992), and Will the Real Greg Bahnsen Please Stand Up? (The Trinity Review, August 1992).

(3) Jim West, in Chalcedon Report (Vallecito, California: May 2000), 23. Mr. Westís exact words are The value of this work is incalculable.

(4) See for example, W. Gary Crampton, Why I Am Not a Van Tilian (The Trinity Review, September 1993); W. Gary Crampton, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (The Trinity Review, July 1996); John W. Robbins, Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth (The Trinity Foundation, 1986); Robert L. Reymond, Preach the Word (Rutherford House, 1988), 16-35; and Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Zondervan, 1982), 99-101.

(5) John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), 77, 78-82, 85.

(6) Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 192.

(7) Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (American Vision and Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), edited by Robert R. Booth.

(8) Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 13n. See also John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), chapters 10, 14, 23.

(9) For more on ad hominem arguments in apologetics, see Gordon H. Clark, Three Types of Religious Philosophy (The Trinity Foundation, 1989), 139-142.

(10) Embarrassingly, the present reviewer at one time also adhered to the two-source theory, as found in The Bible: Godís Word (Journey Publications, 1989).

(11) For more on the Biblical view of science, see Gordon H. Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (The Trinity Foundation, 1987); and W. Gary Crampton, The Biblical View of Science, The Trinity Review (January 1997).

(12) See Van Tilís Introduction to Benjamin B. Warfieldís The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), edited by Samuel G. Craig, 33.

(13) Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 142.

(14) With Van Tilís faulty view of analogical knowledge in mind, it is not surprising to read that he (wrongly) endorses the correspondence theory of truth along with the coherence theory, believing both to be correct (Bahnsen, Van Tilís Apologetic, 162). The correspondence theory holds that, to be true, idea, images, or propositions must correspond to reality; that is, that the mind of man has only a representation of the truth, and not the truth itself. The coherence theory, which is the proper view, claims that propositions within the system of truth are reality. Therefore, man knows reality itself, not merely something that corresponds to reality. Truth is reality, not something else.

(15) See, for example, Reymond, Preach the Word, 16-35; Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, 99-101; and especially Robbins, Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth, 22-27.

(16) See Herman Hoeksemaís insightful comments on this matter in chapter 7 of The Clark-Van Til Controversy (The Trinity Foundation, 1995).