Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Fernandes on Van Til

Victor Reppert has drawn the reader’s attention to a piece by Fernandes on Van Til.


I’ll confine my remarks to his criticisms of Van Til.

“He denies that man has the ability to test revelation-claims. Given Van Til's system, there seems to be no way to decide whether the Bible or the Koran is the Word of God. Yet the Bible frequently commands us to test the spirits, the prophets, and the messages they proclaim (1 Jn 4:1; Deut 18:20-22; Mt 7:15-23; Gal 1:8-9). 38 Also, God provided ample evidence for His revelation-claims by performing miracles through His spokesmen and by raising Jesus from the dead (Jn 20:30-31; 1 Cor 15:3-8). It seems that God has given even fallen man the ability to test revelation-claims. Whether or not man uses this ability wisely is another question. Again, Van Til's Calvinism can be seen. For without regeneration by the Holy Spirit, no one will accept the Bible as God's Word.”

i) This fails to distinguish between revelation and revelation-claims. Revelation is true, whereas not all revelatory claims are true.

As such, not all revelation-claims are on a par. A true revelation-claim is not on the same epistemic plane as a false revelation-claim.

ii) When the Bible talks about testing revelatory claims, it is obviously not, in context, calling upon the reader to doubt or question or challenge its own claims. This should be clear from Deut 13:1-5.

At the moment I’m not saying that we should or shouldn’t test the claims of Scripture. I’m only pointing that Fernandes is quoting Scripture out of context when he cites these passages in application to Scripture itself. That is simply poor exegesis.

iii) Fernandes also fails to distinguish between verification and falsification, as if you can’t verify something unless it is equally open to falsification. But this is a non-sequitur, and fails to take into account the distinction I drew in (i).

In the nature of the case, you can only falsify what is false. What is true is never subject to falsification. That would be a contradiction in terms.

By definition, revelation is true. What is true is never open to falsification. That would be self-contradictory.

But what is true, including a true revelation-claim, may well be verifiable, for one truth will generally cohere with or correspond to another known truth.

Van Til’s position, as I understand him, is that Biblical revelation-claims can be verified, while extra-biblical revelation-claims can be falsified.

iv) Fernandes also fails to distinguish between persuasion and proof. Yes, the unregenerate can verify Scripture. But, apart from regeneration, their process of verification will fall short of conviction. Psychology and logicality are two different things.

“His view that all reasoning is circular. It is true that much of Van Til's thought is circular. It is not true that all thought is circular. Even though all men have presuppositions, they can be tested just as scientific hypotheses are tested. One does not have to sneak one's presuppositions into the premises of one's arguments. Any argument that uses circular reasoning is fallacious, regardless of whether or not the conclusion is true.”

i) When Van Til talks about circular reasoning, he is not talking about a logical syllogism. And he never said he was.

ii) Rather, he’s borrowing a page from the coherence theory of truth in British and Continental idealism, where truth is a system of truths, so that truth is found in the whole.

So this is not a question of what makes a formal argument valid or invalid. Van Til is not speaking of circular reasoning in that fallacious sense of the word.

iii) Now, Van Til is not, himself, an idealist. He is using that model, but he’s going to modify the model, substituting the Christian belief-system for an abstract system of internal relations.

iv) And although the model comes from the coherence theory of truth, it is equally applicable to the correspondence theory of truth.

Fernandes talks about the scientific method. But the scientific method is circular as well. Yes, a scientific hypothesis can be tested. But that takes for granted a metascientific framework which cannot be scientifically tested.

It assumes a particular philosophy of science. It assumes scientific realism, which, in turn, assumes direct realism. So there’s a whole epistemology which lies behind the scientific method.

This epistemology may be testable in its own right, but not by scientific means. By what noncircular argument does an empiricist proves empiricism? He can’t very well appeal to sense knowledge, for any appeal to sense knowledge assumes sense knowledge.

v) As such, Van Til would regard Fernandes’ alternative as viciously circular.

vi) But, for Van Til, there is a way around this dilemma. For him, a transcendental argument is not viciously circular because it does not, unlike, say, the empiricist, try to mount an argument for empiricism by direct appeal to sense knowledge, which would be fallacious.

Instead, TAG will contend that God’s existence is a necessary precondition of knowledge. We cannot ground our reasoning process apart from God. Hence, we can begin with knowledge, and reason back from the fact that we know something, anything at all, to the existence of God.

It’s like Aristotle’s transcendental proof of logic. You can’t prove logic directly, for that would be assuming what you need to prove.

What you can do, instead, is to mount a contrapositive argument. If we can’t do without logic, then that is what validates our use of logic. We have no other alternative.

“His rejection of the law of noncontradiction being universally valid. Though Van Til claimed that he only used the law of noncontradiction for the sake of argument when he shared his faith with nonbelievers, he often criticized many of his colleagues for being inconsistent Calvinists. 39 Though Van Til implied that this law is a man-made principle, he diligently labored to keep his system free from contradictions. Van Til should have realized that there could be no thought or communication whatsoever without the law of contradiction. Even God cannot contradict Himself. And, since God is not subject to anything outside Himself, Clark was right to view this law as naturally flowing from God's being.”

i) This is simply a blatant misreading of Van Til, and if Fernandes had bothered to read the standard expositions of Van Til by Bahnsen (Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis) and Frame (Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought), he would hopefully avoid this fundamental misinterpretation.

Fernandes’ misconstruction is based on selective one-liners from Van Til’s prolific output.

Frankly, it’s a bit hypocritical for an evidential apologist to make so much of documentary evidence in defense of the faith, such as his appeal to Tacitus or Josephus, when he won’t apply that same standard to boning up on what Van Til has written.

It would be awfully nice for a change to see them bring to their criticism of Van Til the same study of primary and secondary sources which they bring to their evidential case for the Christian faith. If they can read Tacitus or Josephus, why can’t they read Bahnsen or Frame?

ii) Van Til’s objection is the way in which a godless philosophy will corrupt the use of logic as well as undercutting the very foundations of logic.

a) At a practical level, the infidelity will alternate between rationalism and irrationalism.

b) At a theoretical level, infidelity will often deny logical necessity by treating logic as a human artifact (e.g., conceptualism; intuitionism) or language game (e.g., fictionalism; logical nominalism).

To the extent that secularism is committed to materialism, it is committed to reductive ontologies of logic.

“Van Til's transcendental argument is not the only valid argument for Christianity. Even John Frame, a former student of Van Til, saw problems with Van Til's transcendental argument. 40 Although Frame recognized the worth of this argument for apologetics, he did not believe it was the only valid argument for Christianity.”

I happen to agree with Frame on this score.

Let us remember, though, that Van Til took the position he did because he agreed with Kant that the traditional theistic proofs were unsound. And he also agreed with Kant, up to a point, that one could get around this by mounting a transcendental argument. Indeed, he went well beyond Kant.

If, on the other hand, you are unimpressed by Kantian criticisms of the traditional theistic arguments, then you can still value the transcendental argument without limiting your arsenal to that particular weapon.

“His rejection of traditional apologetics. Finally, Van Til was wrong to reject traditional apologetics. The Bible commands believers to defend the faith (1 Pt 3:15; Col 4:5-6). The apostles used historical evidences to lead others to Christ (1 Cor 15:3-8). Even Van Til admits that man suppresses the truth that God has given him in nature (Romans 1:18-22). If this is the case, then why shouldn't apologists use traditional arguments to attempt to dislodge these truths from the nonbelievers' subconscious mind? As the last chapter showed, traditional apologetics is on much more solid ground than the presuppositional apologetics of either Van Til or Clark would admit.”

i) This is a gross overstatement. Notice how Fernandes equates his school of apologetics with Scripture. But that’s quite tendentious.

Van Til clearly did not reject 1 Cor 15:3-8 or 1 Peter 3:15 or Col 4:5-6. Fernandes doesn’t hold the patent on these passages of Scripture. No school of apologetics has copyrighted these verses.

ii) The question at issue is not whether we should do apologetics, but how we should do apologetics. What is the best method? What is the most God-honoring approach?

iii) Traditional apologetics is not all of a piece. There are many different strategies in play. Many differing degrees of certainty or doubt which a given apologist or school of apologetics will assign to its own method. There is more than one theory of knowledge on the table.

For example, Clark was a rationalist in the Augustinian tradition. That's a very traditional way of doing apologetics.

So Fernandes has no monopoly on traditional apologetics. His own appeal is quite selective and lopsided.

iv) Van Til had no problem with the use of historical evidence. But he also knew, as a student of Hume and Troeltsch and Wellhausen, to name a few, that it all turns on the rules of evidence, on what is allowed to count as evidence. What is deemed to be actual is dependent on what is deemed to be possible. That’s not a historical question, but a metaphysical question.


  1. Good points, Steve.

    On a practical note, I agree with Greg Koukl that the divide between presup/evidential tactics is largely a tempest in a teapot. I've used both approaches in conversations with non-believers and depending on the context of the discussion, have found both very helpful.

  2. As a Vantilian, I can appreciate Frame's comments from his "Apologetics to the Glory of God" regarding TAs. While TAG can prove the Christian God insofar as he is revealed in general revelation, it may not be able to prove Him as revealed in special revelation w/o supplementary arguments. But special revelation is where the Gospel is, and the Gospel deals with historical events as written in a historical narrative, not the "necessary preconditions of intelligible thought."

    God did not choose to be God. But He did choose to save us. So His work of salvation is not transcendentally necessary as His existence is.