Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Triablogue in dialogue with Victor Reppert


Summary of the discussion with Steve Hays

I maintained that even if the self-deception theory goes through, then we still should say that there are atheists, however self-deceived they may be. I don't think Hays responded to that beyond saying that it was a boring semantical issue. I just think that Christian apologists should not be making absurd claims (even if it turns out the obvious meaning is not what is intended).

I posed some questions about exegetical basis for the self-deception claims, asking, for example, if they are really meant to be applied to individuals as opposed to pagans as a whole. I was told that these passages refer to "the unregenerate," which of course merely asserts the standard Reformed exegesis of the relevant passage, which I was calling into question. Hays pointed out that there are relevant passages, which I am sure there is, but we have to focus somewhere, and I wanted to point out that there is more than one way to interpret the relevant passages.

I also indicated being closer to C. S. Lewis than to Francis Schaeffer on inerrancy (the difference between these two views on inerrancy is laid out in Burson and Walls' book on those two apologists).

I also argued that my study of the reasons for believing and denying belief in God convinced me that reasons could be given both for and against the existence of God, and that based on my study of the reasons on both sides I could not see why one would have to be in self-deception to be a non-believer. It is possible to honestly hold the view that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq even if there were none, and it is possible to honestly hold the view that God does not exist even though God does exist. I can sympathise with someone who rejects theism based on, say, the problem of evil. I have seen plenty of intellectual dishonesty in the atheist camp, but not enough to make a sweeping judgment.

Now, if I could be convinced that God was telling me that these people are really self-deceived and that I am wrong in my assessment of the evidence for and against God, then that would be another matter, but my reading of the relevant passages and my understanding of Scripture permit me to go with my common sense on this matter.


I would like to take a few steps back in order to broaden this discussion. I appreciate the fact that Dr. Reppert, as an outsider to the Van Tilian tradition, is making a good faith effort to understand it.

But for that selfsame reason, I think we need to put it in a larger context.

1.Let me begin by saying that Reppert is obviously a nicer guy than I am. Indeed, that would be an understatement bordering on slander. So, in the matchless eloquence of Lt. Worf, let me improve on my original statement by stating that Reppert is a MUCH nicer guy than I am.

2.Let’s also say a few things about Van Til. He was the product of a very ingrown religious subculture—a subculture with history of literal hostilities with the religious opposition. You know, Philip of Spain. The Remonstrants who were viewed as spies and collaborators with Spain. That sort of thing.

So he brings the perspective of European church history as well Dutch history to bear on apologetics. That, combined with the fact that the Dutch-American community of his generation was very self-enclosed.

3. Van Til was also a revolutionary thinker. He felt that traditional apologetics had gone off the rails, and done so because it wasn’t grounded in sound theology. For him, the fundamental failing of Butler is that Butler wasn’t a Dutch Calvinist. The basic failing of Aquinas is that Aquinas wasn’t a Dutch Calvinist!

Being a revolutionary, he was also a reactionary. So he took something of a scorched earth policy on the past history of apologetics.

4.Now, I say all that to say this:

Reppert likes to quote these juicy red-meat speeches of Van Til in which he damns C. S. Lewis and all his tribe to the inner circle of hell. And if Van Til said it, it’s fair game to quote him on the subject.

But let’s put this in perspective. Depending on how you count, we’re on maybe the fourth generation of Van Tilians:

Van Til>Frame>Bahnsen>Manata et al.

Moreover, contemporary American Van Tilians have a very different historical outlook. You might say, if you wanted to be mean, that Americans have no historical outlook!

We’re the New World. History begins with us!!

We are products of this laid-back, surfer-dude culture in which Evangelicals of varying backgrounds mix very freely with each other, play football together, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have principled disagreements. But, in large part, the fireworks have gone out of the debate.

To go back to the smoldering embers of the old-fashioned polemics is more of an exercise is archeological apologetics than is really relevant to the current situation.

Sure, the debate can still get quite colorful. But that isn’t personal animosity. That’s just the blunt, in-your-face quality of modern American culture.

Furthermore, we’ve all grown-up on C. S. Lewis. We’re all fond of C. S. Lewis. Except for wingnuts like John Robbins, no one is consigning Lewis to the nether regions of Dis, to rub shoulders with Brutus, Judas, and Old Horney.

5.Another thing to keep in mind about Van Til is that he is not directing his fire at the village atheist. Van Til was a trained philosopher and theologian.

He is directing his fire at intellectually advanced forms of infidelity, like Hume and Kant.

These are unbelievers who radically question our common sense notions. Reppert deals with their contemporary counterparts—unbelievers like Dawkins, Dennett, Blackmore, and the Churchlands—not to mention the whole Pomo bestiary.

6.I agree with Reppert that, to a great extent, the Van Tilian project has stalled. There are several reasons for this:

i) If, to adapt the old distinction between left-wing and right-wing Hegelians, we classify Frame as a left-wing Van Tilian and Bahnsen as a right-wing Van Tilian, then right-wing Van Tilianism, which is the more aggressive strain, lost its intellectual sparkplug with the premature death of Bahnsen. And it’s been having to regroup ever since.

ii) Apropos (i), some Van Tilians, or sympathizers thereof, have disappeared from the scene, not because they’ve dropped out of the movement, but because they’ve gone into graduate school or doctoral programs. There is new talent in the pipeline.

If Reppert would like to sample Van Tilian thought at its most astute and up-to-date, he should read the stuff by David Byron of Yale or James Anderson of Edinburgh.

iii) In my own opinion, there’s a fundamental tension in Van Tilian apologetics, as originally conceived, which impedes internal development.

The reason that Van Til took the transcendental route was because of his views regarding the incomprehensibility of God. This, of course, has its parallel in transcendental Thomism.

For Maréchal and Rahner, God is not so much an object of knowledge as he is the origin of knowledge.

Now, Van Till is too orthodox to be that sceptical. Dooyeweerd is far more Kantian than Van Til.

But he comes out of the Dutch-Reformed tradition. Kuyper and Bavinck, as his intellectual mentors, were in a creative dialogue with German idealism—from Kant to Schelling and Fichte:

“This is even so true that we actually owe all our convictions of the reality of the object exclusively to faith. Without faith you can never go from your ego to the non-ego; there is no other bridge to be constructed from phenomena to noumena; and scientifically all the results of observation hang in the air. The line from Kant to Fichte is the only line along which you may continue operations,” A. Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Baker 1980), 133.

“Philosophy, however, reaffirmed the truth of the unknowability of God’s being...Judged scientifically, they [the “transcendent ideas” of God, the world, and the soul] are paralogisms, antinomies, ideals; our knowledge is limited to the sphere of experience. Hence, these ideas do not add anything to our knowledge; they merely regulate it,” H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Banner of Truth 1979), 27.

“Subjectively, the limitations of man’s cognitive faculty were pointed out; and objectively, the self-contradiction pertaining to every idea of God was indicated. The former was done by Kant. The latter by Fichte. Kant examined man’s perceptive faculty and reached the conclusion that the forms of perception and the categories of the mind were inherent in the structure of the mind itself, had validity in the realm of phenomena, but were unable to give us any knowledge of the noumena. ibid. 31.

“To a large extent we can agree with this doctrine of God’s unknowability...There is no knowledge of God as he is in himself,” 32.

“Nevertheless, the remark of Fichte: that personality is an idea borrowed from the human realm and when applied to God can never be fully adequate, is correct,” 35.

Herewith the question of God’s knowability is reduced to the question whether God has been willing to reveal himself and has actually revealed himself to his creatures. For, we fully agree with Kant that our knowledge is confined to the realm of experience. If god has not revealed himself, there can be no knowledge of him. But if he has revealed himself, there is something, however insignificant, which can be the object of our perception and therefore can lead to knowledge,” 36.

Compare this to a very early statement of Van Til’s:

“Faith is the only link between phaenomenon and noumenon...In self-consciousness then our own existence is revealed to us, [as] an act of God, and we accept it by faith, [as] an act of God. This fundamental fact of self-consciousness as revealed to us again in turn implies our faith in [a] reality beyond ourselves, for in spite of the criticism, and even because of it we build the firmer on the faith given in consciousness that the Ding-an-sich operates upon our spiritual apperception within us, in a mysterious fashion beneath the threshold of consciousness. Thus we are by the very power of faith which its presupposed as a basis of all knowledge we are again driven to the conception of an infinite self-revealing God, and absolutely dependent, finite creatures,” “The Will in its Theological Relations: An Essay for Casper Wistar Hodge,” 72-73.

We can, I think, see in this how Van Til’s doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is a direct outgrowth of a neo-Kantian religious epistemology, mediated by his theological mentors. Indeed, we have a direct quote, in the original, from Kuyper’s Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, on pp71-72, of Van Til’s term paper.

In this respect, Van Til’s appeal to limiting principles is also Kantian, not merely in the superficial sense that the idea comes from Kant, but that it takes for granted a Kantian theory of knowledge--although Van Til modifies the concept in line with his commitment to divine revelation.

At the same time, Van Til was not unmindful of where these ideas were ultimately coming from: “In seeking to make the Christ of the Scriptures speak to the culture of his time, Bavinck was, however, greatly influence by Neo-Thomism...Other men, such as Schelling and Schleiermacher, also had their influence on Bavinck,” “Bavinck the Theologian” WTJ 24 (November 1961), 49. So Van Til was able to maintain some critical distance.

What we witness here is a creative tension between traditional Reformed theology and the then-contemporary currents of Continental philosophy.

To the extent that Van Til was sympathetic to that brand of religious epistemology, he was debarred from traditional apologetics for the reason that many post-Humean and post-Kantian apologetes feel that the history of ideas had turned a corner with the Enlightenment, and there was no going back to the Edenic innocence of natural theology as practiced by Anselm, Aquinas, and Paley, to name a few.

So we need to remember the Continental context of the thought-world in which Van Til positioned himself.

Now, if you accept this view, then the only way remaining to argue for God’s existence is to mount a transcendental argument.

Insofar as God is held to be, at best, an indirect object of knowledge, then he can only be proven by an indirect line of argument. We can prove the “thatness” of God, but not his “whatness.”

But the practical problem with this maneuver is that it’s difficult to see how you can even construct a transcendental argument without resorting to a stepwise series of supporting arguments.

In my opinion, the only solution is to drop the neo-Kantian epistemology, which was always a blind-alley.

Neo-Thomism and Van Tilianism come to transcendental theism via a quasi-Kantian epistemology.

However, the form of transcendental reasoning is not logically dependent on a Kantian epistemology.

Some readers may surmise that I’m siding with Gordon Clark at this juncture. But one of the ironies of the Clark Controversy is that Clark was also influenced by Kant. For Clark, Kant had successfully demolished the traditional theistic proofs.

7.Alongside German idealism was British idealism. For example, there is, to my knowledge, the unexplored influence of Bradley’s philosophy of history on Van Til’s apologetic method.

Why, for example, did Van Til seize on the word “presupposition”? Where did that come from? Well, one tempting source is Bradley’s The Presuppositions of Critical History, originally issued in 1874.

And there’s more than just the coincidental use of a common term in the title. You only have to read Bradley’s exposition to see how much of this is going to feed into Van Til:

“Criticism has become self-conscious: but to be aware of its aims and the character of its work is one thing; it is another thing to attempt to comprehend the conditions of its being, and the justification of its empire” (Quadrangle Books 1968), 82.

“The pure rays of truth,” we are told, ‘are discoloured by the various media through which they pass, and it is the task of the historian to correct the refraction of one medium by that of another, and in this manner to arrive at the bare and uncloloured reality’ But the historian, if such be his mission, is not and cannot be merely receptive, or barely reproductive. It is true that he may not actually add any new material of his own, and yet his action, insofar as he realizes that which never as such has been given him, implies a preconception, and denotes in a sense a foregone conclusion. The straightening of the crooked rests on the knowledge of the straight, and the exercise of criticism requires a canon,” ibid. 86.

“The heading, ‘Presuppositions of Critical History,” expresses briefly the doctrine which is the opposite of the uncritical, and anticipates the result that a history without so-called prejudications is a mere delusion, that what does everywhere exist is history founded upon them, and what ought to exist is history with true preconceptions consistently developed throughout the entire field,” ibid. 87.

“History must ever be founded on a presupposition...Paley protested against that which he called a ‘prejudication.’ We have seen the reason why every history is necessarily based on prejudication; and experience testifies that, as a matter of fact, there is no single history which is not so based, which does not derive its individual character from the particular standpoint of the author. There is no such thing as a history without a prejudication; the real distinction is between the writer who has its prejudications without knowing what they are, and whose prejudications, it may be, are false, and the writer who consciously orders and creates from the known foundation of that which for him is the truth.

It is when history becomes aware of its presuppositions that it first becomes truly critical, and protects itself (so far as is possible) from the caprices of fiction,” ibid. 96.

“’Science,’ we may be told in answer, ‘is founded on experiment and not on a presupposition.’ ‘The fact of the existence of scientific experiment proves,’ we must return, ‘the existence of an absolute presupposition, which it can be said to found, only because upon that itself is already founded.’ We based our action on that which our action itself supports and testifies to. Unless upon the assumption of the exclusion of all interference and chance, no one could say that an experiment was of the smallest value. The man of science cannot prove is assumption beforehand; he knows that as a fact his science exists, and that there are certain conditions necessary to its existence, and he troubles himself little (if at all) with the possibility of the falsehood of his assumptions,” ibid. 97.

“We have seen so far that history is [a] matter of inference; that every inference rests on a presupposition; and that this presupposition is formed by present experience,” 121.

“And this may be considered an artificial position, insofar as the individual critic never does actually separate himself from the whole of his historical knowledge, but invariably brings with him to the work a portion of the traditional object, already rationalized and made part of his present and critical world. Nor is this apparent anticipation of his result unjustified in the individual, if that which he brings as a canon to criticism has been itself already confronted with criticism and rationalized by virtue of it,” 121.

It’s not that Van Til is looking to Bradley for answers. Rather, he is more interested in how Bradley frames the question. And these questions remain as pertinent today as they were to a Victorian philosopher like Bradley.

8.Returning to Reppert, he takes issue with my exegesis. But he also takes issue with the authority of Scripture to settle this question. Yet if that is so, then the exegetical criticisms are moot, for even if he conceded my exegesis, that would still not constrain the conclusion.

9.Reppert also gives the unbeliever the benefit of the doubt because he regards the Christian faith as open to doubt. This has really been the sticking point all along.

And it runs much deeper than a technical question of apologetic method, of what types of formal argumentation are better than others.

No, this is a question of religious epistemology, which is, in term, a theological question. And depending on your theological tradition, as well as your personal experience, you will give different answers to the same question.

What is faith? What is the epistemic status of saving faith? Is it a particular mode of knowledge? Or is it defeasible opinion?

If the latter, then apologetic dialogue is a truly open-ended exchange of views. The believer may argue the unbeliever into believing, or the unbeliever may argue the believer into disbelieving.

On this view, the difference between Christian faith and infidelity is a difference of degree rather than kind, quantitative rather than qualitative. For both positions fall short of knowledge. Both positions are doubtful. It’s more a question of which position is less dubious than the other.

And that, in turn, furnishes an attenuating or even exculpatory circumstance concerning the morality of unbelief. The unbeliever is, at the very least, in a state of diminished responsibility since it is reasonable for him to disbelieve in God. He may be mistaken, but his unbelief is not irrational.

That, however, is not at all the position of Calvinism. In its theology of general revelation, special revelation, common grace, idolatry, perseverance, and the witness of the Spirit, both believer and unbeliever are in a position to know where the truth lies. It is more, even, than a matter of psychological certitude. It is, rather, an unmistakable apprehension of the truth, which is then acted upon, either in fidelity to the truth or infidelity.

10. Which analysis should we believe?

That’s really a question of the supporting arguments as well as individual experience.

If, like Reppert, you don’t find Reformed exegesis convincing, or if, like Reppert, you don’t feel honor-bound by exegesis even if it were persuasive, and if, what is more, you harbor personal, irrepressible doubts about the Christian faith, then you will find yourself siding with Reppert.

If, on the other hand, you agree with Reformed exegesis as well as the authority of Scripture, and if, what is more, you’ve been blessed with a spontaneous and irrepressible faith, then you’ll find yourself siding with Calvinism. And I’d add that a Kantian epistemology is fundamentally incompatible with this outlook.


  1. Steve,

    Thanks for the great thoughts on the state of the "VanTilian project." As I said before in a previous comment, I think TAs have a hard time proving the content of special revelation - specifically the Gospel (with an inherent historical narrative). I think this is why you referred to a "step-wise" series of supporting arguments.

    Related to this is the "Fristianity" problem - is it transcendentally necessary that Jesus went to Capernaum; or why a Trinity and not a Quadrinity?

    Another problem with the "project" is the lack of definitive literature. The Reformed Epistemology folks have their "Warrant Trilogy" magnum opus. When I talked some years ago to James Anderson about this when I was in Edinburgh, he said he'd "get right on" writing such a magnum opus for the Pressup cause. :)

    BTW, Mr. (Dr. now, I believe?) Anderson is a nice fellow. The Blessed Isle needs more folks like him.

  2. I have to say that I don't recall using those precise words, David. :)

    In the interests of reciprocity, I should make it known that Mr Gadbois is a gentleman and a scholar, but he should be aware that if he returns to Edinburgh anytime soon, he won't be able to smoke his cigars as we discuss the future of presuppositionalism over pints of Scottish ale.

  3. Actually, now I think about it, it was a pipe rather than a cigar. You see! We're both a bit fuzzy on the details of that day...

  4. James,

    That was 3 years ago now, and I wasn't even a practicing aerospace engineer at the time. You were still in the middle of your doctoral studies. I haven't seen you use "Dr. Anderson" anywhere, so I was unsure if you had finished yet.

    Actually, I've switched back to cigars now that I have a real income. They are gloriously offensive things. I haven't touched the pipe in a while.

    As for the U.K.'s smoking persecutions, I already noticed it and blogged about it in a post entitled "Et Tu, Britannia?" :